American cities depend on federal data


To learn how important federal data is to cities, the Sunlight Foundation, in partnership with DataLensDC, conducted a national survey of city staff about how federal data informs their work. The findings of our survey are now available, including our analysis and the underlying data.

What we confirmed is that federal data is uniquely important to cities. The United States government collects information on things like population, household incomes, race and ethnicity, public health, environmental quality, and economic activity, among many categories, that municipalities cannot.

Cities use federal data to inform all kinds of decisions. Federal data helps cities understand how they are performing over time and how they compare to other cities across the country. All of these are key elements of data-driven, evidence-based decisionmaking in government.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress do not understand the value of federal data programs. The House Oversight Committee is debating whether to adequately fund the 2020 U.S. Census. Some members of Congress have questioned programs like the American Community Survey — an information resource which nearly every American city uses. Many other federal programs are drawing similar scrutiny.

Changes to federal data would have enormous implications for cities. Yet despite the fact that they are likely among the largest users of federal data, the perspectives of city halls are rarely included in these debates. That should change.

As Congress considers making changes to the funding or collection of federal data, they should consider the opinions of city leaders and information needs of American communities. Members of the press should include cities in their analysis of why federal data matters. National organizations that represent the interests of cities should incorporate this into their advocacy. City staff should be vocal about how they use federal data in their work, and why these issues are important to them. And Census Bureau staff should know that their work is important and valued by cities across the country.

Data-driven, evidence-based decisionmaking is a core part of accountable, efficient, and effective government. Through our involvement in efforts such as the What Works Cities initiative, Sunlight is dedicated to helping cities across the country incorporate this empirical approach governance. For these efforts to succeed federal data is key.

Read our full findings to learn more.