Gather information about the problem

In your earliest phase it is critical to develop a comprehensive understanding of the problem. You will want to learn about the people who are affected by the problem you are trying to solve and those who can impact the problem. From there, you will get insight into the root cause of the problem, the work that has been tried in the past, and the effectiveness of those efforts. The work from this chapter will serve as the foundation for activities in subsequent chapters. You may revisit these steps as you identify indicators and plan your implementation and analysis.

Be sure to dedicate time and resources to this step. It can be tempting to skip ahead to looking for solutions or to assume that you have an understanding of the problem as a result of a public engagement process.

The City of Lewisville, TX, conducted a Citywide public engagement process to develop its Lewisville 2025 Strategic Plan. One of the Big Moves outlined in the plan was "Extending the Green," or expanding green space and connecting recreation areas with neighborhoods. The action steps to achieve this goal included cleaning up creeks and removing debris to make them more accessible. The clean ups went smoothly in several neighborhoods, but the City met with opposition from one neighborhood that preferred the natural habitat and expressed concern about the environmental impact of the clean ups. According to Lewisville, if the City had mapped all of the stakeholders to determine who needed to be at the table and who was missing, focusing information gathering on the neighborhood level, it have avoided this problem.

Start with the "who"...the people

Establish a project team

Begin by naming the project team for this process, including a project lead. The project lead should be someone in City government who is respected, can galvanize other key partners, and has the time to lead this work. This is someone who may have to have difficult conversations with City leadership, departments, and other funded partners. It is not necessary for the project lead to be a policy expert. It is more important for them to have the right relationships and position within the organization. The project team should include individuals with diverse perspectives from multiple departments. There should be someone with policy experience on the project team to ground the conversation in realistic action. Having a team member who can coordinate with researchers on rigorous analysis and translate that work for others is key. Additionally, be sure to include front line staff workers: They will have valuable insight based on their interactions with residents and policy solutions have to make sense to the people who will be charged with implementing them. Building a strong, diverse project team is important to ensure that the work does not live and die by one person.

Identify key partners

Next, identify the people who the project team can work with on the issue you are facing, including people with lived experience in the problem your city is trying to solve, department staff, and subject matter experts outside of city government. This is the concept behind "build with, not for," a movement led by Laurenellen McCann that emphasizes community expertise and leadership. Mapping out key players and their roles is critical do to early in the information gathering phase, since coalition building is such an integral part of the policy change process. This process might consist of stakeholder mapping (described below), community resource mapping, and cultural mapping. In your mapping, remember to consider potential allies and those who may present roadblocks along the way.

Policy making is not top down or linear. In some cases cities may have to share decision-making power with other actors. For instance, in many cities the local Continuum of Care (CoC) is the lead entity on homelessness services. CoCs apply for and steward federal funds to address homelessness and coordinate services among local providers. Although city governments do have a role in CoCs, they are not always the lead agency charged with distributing funds and therefore their role in homelessness policy may be limited. County governments often have health departments while cities do not. In those cases the balance of power favors county government.

The City of Denton, TX, was recently faced with an issue of resident complaints about a new dockless bike share that arrived in town and is viewed by some as "expensive litter." In response, Denton's City Council, which was already discussing potential rules for bike share companies, elevated this issue and charged city staff with identifying a solution. Presently, the City is reviewing ordinances from nearby cities to determine how they are solving this problem, and what solutions may be feasible in Denton. The mapping example below represents local actors in Denton with a stake in this issue who have multiple perspectives and levels of power.

Use this template, developed by the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), to brainstorm who you might reach out to as you embark on the road to policy change. Remember to think about how each person or group relates to the problem.

Begin to define the "what," or the problem, in your City

The rest of this section will help you refine the problem statement. For now, gather some key partners to clearly articulate why change is needed. Use the template below, developed by Denver Peak Academy, to capture the problem statement. You will build on this later.

Problem Statement – Why Change is Needed (1-2 Sentences)

Through our interviews with city staff we heard that when discussing municipal challenges, it can be tempting to jump to a solution before taking the time to really understand the root cause of the problem. This makes sense, since city leaders and staff are responsible for delivering services and being responsive to residents, while addressing new problems that arise in the city.

The roots of the problems that cities are working to solve are complex and may be the legacy of historical federal policy or sweeping social trends. To help the problem seem less daunting, it can help to break them down into the root cause to identify a manageable component of the problem. Using a fishbone exercise or "five whys" technique can also help to find the root cause of the problem, and avoid simply addressing symptoms of the problem and repeating the mistakes of history. Tools such as journey maps can help you understand the experience of those who are affected by the problem.

The Centre for Public Impact, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, developed an exercise to support cities in identifying the "right sized problem." According to CPI, a "right sized" problem is one that is large enough to potentially apply to other cities, but small enough to solve within a reasonable time frame.

At the beginning of Mayor Berke's administration in the City of Chattanooga, TN, veterans experiencing homelessness were asking the City for help in finding housing. Talking to this population revealed that veterans had trouble identifying affordable housing, which motivated the Administration to work on a solution. The problem of veterans experiencing homelessness was the "right size" because it focused on one segment of people experiencing homelessness - veterans - and their specific challenge in identifying affordable housing.

Develop a comprehensive understanding of how your city currently addresses the issue

In the Chattanooga example mentioned above, City staff discovered that veterans were having trouble navigating the City's various affordable housing programs and getting access to the housing and services that they needed. At the same time, newly elected Mayor Berke was exploring current and future opportunities to serve this population. Rather than continue to use federal funding for emergency shelters, Mayor Berke directed city staff to prioritize "Housing First," which values connecting people with permanent housing over transitional housing and supportive service after speaking with representatives at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This examination of what the City is currently funding and the sources of that funding was a turning point in Chattanooga. Understanding this problem from a systems perspective - including policies and funding streams at multiple levels of government, social networks through which information is often spread, technology, the built environment of market-rate and public housing - helped the new Mayor analyze existing efforts and lead staff and other actors in the same direction.

Begin to gather the data

To truly capture the suite of services that your City is providing, ask department staff to list the programs related to your problem statement that your city runs or funds. When listing the programs, capture details such as:

  • program name
  • the name of the dataset that is relevant to each program
  • a description of the dataset
  • the source of the dataset
  • if the data is internal or external
  • whether this data is already being collected

This information will form the basis of your inventory of administrative data, or datasets that are kept by governments for operational purposes. This may include call center records (311, 911), tax data, property assessments, inspection information, social service records, etc. At this point, list all relevant administrative datasets. You will prioritize which datasets to gather more information on later when you are developing indicators.

A sample template that can be used to capture this information is below:

Problem Statement: ____________________________________________

Program Name Dataset Title Dataset Description Data Source Department or external partner Does the City already collect this data? Sensitivity ranking Quality ranking
What is the name of the program? Human-readable name of the dataset Should be understandable by non-technical users What is the original system/application/file that houses it? Department or external partner that maintains the data Is this data already collected? Sensitivity score based on your city's rubric Quality score based on your city's rubric

To gather this information, consider assigning one point person to survey or interview city staff. Speaking with front line workers, staff who work with federal grants, department heads, and everyone in between will ensure a deep understanding of the relevant programs and datasets. During the course of these conversations, be sure to ask city staff which organizations they work with externally and capture that information as well even if they are not recipients of city funding. In addition to conversations with experts in city government, your city's budget documents are another great source of information.

Next, try to gain an understanding of why the problem still exists if it has been something you have worked on for awhile, or why it is emerging now if it is new.

Analyzing administrative data can demonstrate past effectiveness of initiatives related to your problem statement. Using the dataset inventory that you began in the previous step, talk to department staff about which datasets are most relevant to the problem and gather a few years worth of historical data. Begin to look for trends in this data, discussing potential reasons for those trends with relevant staff. Can the trends be explained by seasonality, changes in funding, staffing fluctuations, or some other reason? Based on the historical data analysis, create a baseline against which future changes can be observed.

Other datasets can help provide additional context. For instance, if the number of people experiencing homelessness in your city is increasing, it may be helpful to take a look at housing affordability. If you do not have the data you need, consider a proxy measure. As an example, housing is often considered affordable if it costs 30% or less of a household's income. But if household income data is not available at the city level, Area Median Income (AMI) can be a helpful proxy.

Qualitative data can also help answer questions around the effectiveness of previous efforts. Try to obtain a variety of perspectives -- both mainstream and outliers -- from networks beyond your own to provide you with the greatest vantage point for evaluating potential impact. Understanding how those efforts were received by different parts of your community, and if there may be elements of previous systems to preserve, will be crucial to the success of any policy change. This information may be obtained through focus groups, interviews, and surveys. For more information on how to use these qualitative research tools, please see these resources developed by the Agency for Health Care and Research and Urban Institute.

Finally, take a look at national data to see where else this problem might exist. This research may be helpful in later steps, when you are looking for promising policies in other cities.

Putting it all together

Use the template below, developed by Denver's Peak Academy, to capture your refined, "right sized" problem statement, and current and future states. Working through this exercise with partners is helpful to gain buy-in. The responses will be important when getting other partners on board.

Why Change Is Needed
Your right-sized problem
Current State
Analysis of trends in data
Future State
Ideally, what are the outcomes you hope to achieve


The key steps to gathering information are below:

  • At this point, focus on the problem rather than jumping to solutions

  • Listen to people who are asking for help and to advocates who are raising issues

  • Be as specific as possible in identifying the root cause and honing in on the part of the problem that your city can address

  • Identify trends based on multiple sources of data including historical administrative data, proxy measures, qualitative data, and national measures

  • Capture your problem statement, the results of your analysis, and desired outcomes

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