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Rilling unveils Mayor’s dashboard

A Norwalk webpage accessible through the Mayor’s dashboard.

Updated, 3:35 p.m.: More information. 

NORWALK, Conn. – A glistening array of municipal information is now available for you on the City’s website.

The Mayor’s dashboard, unveiled Monday and prominently displayed on the website’s homepage, is described as “an interactive look at the information and statistics that help guide the city” and will reportedly evolve in response to community feedback. Although such dashboards are a developing trend around the country, this one is one of a kind, developed by in-house staff at no cost, Mayor Harry Rilling said.

“We looked at many other cities. Boston, New York, Seattle, San Fran, Los Angeles. We learned from those that we wanted it to be dynamic and regularly updated (not a PDF) like some had. And some had too much data with no context. We didn’t find that helpful either,” Rilling said in an evening email. “This is my unique take on a dashboard.”

“I think it is a great tool for the residents to see progress and track not so progress,” Town Clerk Rick McQuaid said. “The Town Clerk’s office provided information that we hope is beneficial to the public, it is a work in progress so we will be having input on what is working or is needed make it even better. We have some new ideas already we are working on.”

“The Dashboard does not show information grouped by department, instead, it is deliberately sorted into six different areas representative of the fabric of what makes Norwalk a great place to live, work, and visit,” a press release explained. “The Dashboard presents information in a modern way to tell the story of what is happening all around Norwalk. Most of this work occurs behind-the-scenes, and the Dashboard brings that story to life. There are currently over 100 data points that were selected based on feedback from City staff and their experiences interacting with the public.”

Rilling in January 2018 called a dashboard one of his goals for the year but said he couldn’t give an ETA.  In an October video, he said, “Each City department has been requested t put together different metrics that they believe are interesting to the people in the community, knowing what’s happening in Norwalk, knowing how efficient we’re being, how effective we’re being. That will be ready hopefully within the next three to four months.”

“I firmly believe in government transparency, and I am thrilled that we can share this information directly with the public,” Rilling said in the Monday press release. “This information was not chosen because it made us look good, but rather, it was what we felt the public would be interested in seeing. The Mayor’s Dashboard is a living product, and we will continually look to add and expand the information as we move forward. I hope the public takes time to explore the Dashboard and will let us know what they think. Their feedback is critical and will help inform where we go next.”

“City dashboards give municipalities the opportunity to brag about successes and explain strategies to fix problems,” ClearPoint Strategy, a company that builds dashboards, states on its website. “As part of that, citizens can see what the city is tracking and measuring, as well as how much progress is being made, which often provides helpful context and reasoning behind different initiatives.”

 

What does the dashboard show?

One little oddity about the dashboard: it’s showing statistics for 2020. That’s because we’re in fiscal year 2020, which began on July 1. It also looks like it’s saying “OK” in several places, but the “K” refers to “thousands” and the “O” is a zero.

There’s a years’ worth of statistics for 2019 but 2020 is a work in progress, of course. Some segments have two little boxes on the bottom; click one and you get 2018-19 info and click the other for 2019-20.

It shows that there were 5,883 calls to Norwalk Police this July but 5,399 in July 2018. There were 1,851 parking tickets issued in July 2018 and 2,933 this July.

Rilling said he had no specific explanation for the increase in police calls. “Parking tickets is not an apples to apples comparison because this is the first year LAZ patrolled our parks and beaches. We have gotten several questions about this already, so may break out parks vs. on street tickets in next update.”

Construction investment is reported as way up, from $17.5 million in July 2018 to nearly $58.6 million this July. Rilling said that’s attributable to The SoNo Collection, the mall expected to open in October, “and a few other large projects.”

The “A Safe & Welcoming City” page shows rainfall totals, amidst tallies of police and fire calls, fire violations and inspections, crime trends, the number of Health Department laboratory tests and patients served in clinics.

“Rainfall is one of the many things the health department tracks that relates to health and safety of residents,” Rilling said. “It can have impacts on water quality, flooding, shellfishing, swimming, and, as we experienced a year or so ago – drought conditions. We thought it would be of interest to residents.”

Why not post police and fire response times?

“Response times are something we could add in the future if we hear feedback that it’s something people are interested in. We have quite a bit of public safety info on there and the numbers for response times were basically flat … so didn’t seem very interesting.  They didn’t make the final cut of what to put on that page.”

Under “fire calls,” the page shows “EMS,” “Fire” and “others.”

“Others” are, “Gas spills, funny odor, false alarm, cat in a tree, etc.,” Rilling said.

The page for “A Fiscally Strong City” shows budget information, the tax collection rate, the City’s bond rating and fund balance – $52.27 million in “2020” and $57.67 million in 2019 – in addition to grand list info and mill rates of neighboring communities.

NancyOnNorwalk asked about the mill rate posting in the context of an election in 76 days, whether other cities provide this information.

“I don’t know of any other Connecticut cities that have dashboards, and we are one of the only states with 169 different towns, all with different tax rates,” Rilling replied. “Mill rate and grand list information are one of the most common things people have questions about. It’s also something very important to people who are thinking about moving their family or business to Norwalk. It is completely relevant and frankly would be odd not to include it.”

 

‘Evolving’

The dashboard is an evolving tool, developed with input from department heads and finalized by Rilling’s opinion about what was important to include, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King said. Eventually, the input of up-to-date information will be automated through some intensive back-end website programming, and the City is expecting that over the next few months, the public will weigh in on what they want to see.

Departments will be updating their information monthly until the automated feature is in, she said.

It’s expected to become more interactive, with more historical data added: you should be able to click on the budget and pull up individual departments, according to King.

“The Mayor’s Dashboard is a collection of key statistics, both financial and operational, which show how Norwalk is functioning in an easy-to-understand format for all the city’s citizens,” Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said in an email. “It did not cost much or take undue amounts of time — most of this data was already being collected by the departments and was just centralized into one collection point.  We did not use outside consultants; our excellent IT department (kudos to Karen DelVecchio and Joyce Liu) built the site in-house.”

Director of Recreation and Parks Nick Roberts and Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin confirmed that it’s data already collected by their departments and there isn’t an onerous workload to upload it to the dashboard.

“The Planning Commission has been interested in tracking various metrics so this is a good start to that effort,” Kleppin wrote.

“I’ve worked for other municipalities in the past who have utilized similar dashboard indices to provide the public with real time data. I think it provides transparency to residents and shows that the City is committed to data driven performance and management,” Roberts wrote.

“Norwalk is the only municipality in the state that has anything this comprehensive for its constituents,” Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli said. “This is the future of governmental accountability. Kudos to our Information Technology Department (my colleagues) who were responsible for a lot of the development and data presentation.”

The “Mayor’s dashboard.”

21 comments

Sue Haynie August 20, 2019 at 6:39 am

Nice addition but certainly wouldn’t saying it was ‘developed at not cost.’ This is the kind of thing we pay an Asst. Mayor, Communication Director and IT department to do. Timing is everything, right before an election.

As for mill rate comparisons, if Hartford’s mill rate of 74.29 is included in the list, than certainly the other end of the spectrum should be included too–Westport’s mill rate is 16.86. And, Westport’s property values are increasing while Norwalk’s are decreasing in many areas of town.

Agree with NON about ‘the oddity of the dashboard showing statistics for 2020’ which, of course, compares only 2 months of data compared to 2019. A more honest dashboard would have compared data from the previous year to the current.

Steve August 20, 2019 at 7:03 am

Sue Haynes, in a city that has an election every two years, half of everything is on the eve of the election

John ONeill August 20, 2019 at 7:09 am

Agree with Sue..Should be informational, not propaganda. Let’s get this right and it could be useful

Scott August 20, 2019 at 7:36 am

It’s a nice start but seems fairly light on key indicators.

I recommended this type of dashboard last year while responding to a NoN article as a way for the public to see what our local government is doing and how it is performing. I have ties to St. Petersburg, FL and below is a link for their dashboard, which I provided at the time.

https://stat.stpete.org/

Again, the Norwalk one is a good start but I think residents would rather see response times, crime/traffic statistics, info for capital projects, building permits issued, types of zoning infractions reported and enforced rather than the number of library books borrowed.

Looking forward to it evolving.

Rob August 20, 2019 at 9:03 am

Scott, you my may have a point, but rather than denigrate “library books borrowed” think about how Norwalk’s cultural institutions contribute to quality of life, here, and throughout the state. Local taxes support these to one degree or another. I’m impressed a mayor’s dashboard has been created and will go with, “The Mayor’s Dashboard will continually look to expand information,” for now. What more can you ask?

Claire Schoen August 20, 2019 at 10:09 am

Kudos to the city for doing this at no additional cost. Is it perfect? Probably not. Will it improve with community input? Most likely.
BTW, if you take a closer look, there ARE stat on crime and police calls, building permits issued etc. There’s a ton of data here. Propaganda? Only if you want it to be; I see it as an attempt at transparency, I suppose others will see it as they wish. What was it Thomas Jefferson said about an informed citizenry?
For an in-house job, I say, well done and thanks.

AL August 20, 2019 at 10:36 am

Sounds interesting but so did the ongoing effort by Scamford to create email lists and “other methods” to communicate.
Controlling information and communications is important to politicians at every level but history shows mixed results.

Piberman August 20, 2019 at 11:33 am

Few things affect a City’s future as its level of property taxation. Danbury manages to provide City services at 30% less per capita than Norwalk. And Westport has kept taxes unchanged for 5 years. Why Norwalk can’t demonstrate similar economies remains puzzling.

Lisa Brinton August 20, 2019 at 11:50 am

Would love a dashboard comparison with historical data from 2013. Since this mayor is so proud of the direction he’s taken Norwalk in, why not put it on display?

Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction, and not just an election gimmick, similar to the SONO promo video. Speaking of which, has there been any follow up to see if Norwalk businesses enjoyed more customers following the airing of the commercial?

Dashboards are a best practice tool used around the country, but simply displaying graphical data without a stated performance improvement goal or purpose is just data. There’s also the potential to manipulate and mislead and/or not differentiate between short term operational issues versus longer term trends or strategic goals.

Here’s some metrics to consider: What is Norwalk’s target population? What’s the target number of apartments? What’s the target ratio of city employees to residents? Will city staff grow to service the population increase or be expected to work harder and more efficiently?

Performance data is good, but without stated goals, objectives and overall context, it can lose its value.

Bobby Lamb August 20, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Bahahahahahaha! Population targets? If we exceed them we build a wall? Ratio of city employees to residents? We have one of the leanest municipal governments in the country. This false narrative of over population, TOO MANY KIDS, rising taxes! It’s scare tactics based on falsehoods. Looks like she’s taking tips from Trump. BOE is talking about having to close schools. Average taxes went down this year. Growth is averaging under 1% a year. For someone who says she cares about metrics and data?? Is she for real?

Mike Mushak August 20, 2019 at 9:04 pm

Bravo Bobby Lamb! Great comment. The facts are clearly getting in the way of Lisa’s false narrative based on fear-mongering and exclusionary policies.

For crying out loud she can’t even leave the new “dashboard” alone without resorting to outrageous statements about population caps and ratios. Are we in Nazi Germany all over again?

Glad someone else sees Lisa Brinton’s true colors as I have, as a threat to everything Norwalk has always stood for which is diversity, inclusion, affordability, and opportunity.

Lisa’s vision of Norwalk as a place with population caps (and a resulting flat or falling grand list) and sparse unaffordable housing is a nightmare, a place clearly not for everyone as Norwalk always has been since its founding nearly 400 years ago.

Diversity and inclusion have always been Norwalk’s strength. We will never be Darien, with all due respect. If that’s what Lisa wants, she should please move across the Five Mile River and let Norwalk be what Norwalk always has been, a beautifully diverse and creative and vibrant city that is only getting better under Harry Rilling.

Lisa Brinton August 21, 2019 at 7:35 am

Danbury’s mayor made a developer pony up financial support for their school system. Milford’s mayor just put a moratorium on affordable housing. Our mayor is giving a 15 year tax credit for Poko! What do these mayor’s know that our own does not? And that our most vocal planning commissioner doesn’t comprehend?

All this increased density being pushed by Hartford into Fairfield County cities because of proximity to NYC is to make up for revenue lost by businesses and jobs exiting CT. It’s financially unsustainable to local municipalities bearing the burden and most felt in our schools, where I’ve spent the past 15 years.

I agree, Norwalk has always been a naturally beautiful and diverse city. However, it’s being ruined with increased density. As I door knock, the biggest complaint from voters is congestion and rising property taxes. Norwalk is quickly becoming Westchester County – where the future of a median priced home of $400k will carry a $15k tax bill and 45 min drive between Sono and Cranbury.

Debora Goldstein August 21, 2019 at 10:33 am

Trolling again. Tactic #7 Misstate a position and attack your own substitute. .

Targets are not necessarily caps. They could, and the context here suggests they are, targets for GROWTH. The Mayor’s adminstration, including all of its planning bodies (and Mr. Mushak sits on one of them) have enthusiastically endorsed growth in our population, especially packing millenials into dense housing around train station, and in microunits in our recovering West-Wall central business district.

Any person with a degree in public administration (both Mayoral candidates have one) would well recognize that benchmarking the data against your performance objectives is what makes the data useful and transparent. Tying it to budgeting decisions like staffing is responsible planning.

For example, what if your target for economic development was to increase population by recruiting new residents to move here by 10% and you increased it by 20%? Is that a success? What are the impacts to staff, budget and infrastructure? What if you only increased it by 2%? Success or failure? Did we spend too much on staff and infrastructure?

Tactic #13. If mentioning Trump doesn’t work, try Nazis.

Lisa makes a good point. This Mayor ran against a candidate promoting performance-based budgeting SIX years ago, backed by councilmembers who insisted we were already doing it. He also promised more transparency. He formed task forces for everything you could think of, but declined to form a public outreach and transparency task force.

So, now we have a dashboard and three paid staffers dedicated to publicity, even as FOI requests are being throttled to a crawl. How does this measure up against the Mayor’s own performance benchmarks for transparency? We don’t know, because he never made them public…but I think six years was too long to wait.

Ed August 21, 2019 at 1:18 pm

It’s nice to have these metrics, and it’s a good thing local governments are doing this. It would be interesting to see metrics going back a few years if that is all possible.

Drew Ablank August 21, 2019 at 1:47 pm

outrageous statements 101 (and decorum) – Are we in Nazi Germany all over again? Suggesting that someone who is challenging his favorite Mayor of being… what? A nazi? What a stretch. How does this guy get away with this nonsense over and over. Straight outta Communist Rules for Revolution

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