Nashville is digging deeper into its data – the city’s Metro Human Relations Commission and Code for Nashville have unveiled a new data visualization platform that will allow the public to view and track diversity within the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn.
The online platform is part of a larger project by the Metro Human Relations Commission to analyze Metro’s workforce diversity and ensure transparency following the January 2015 release of the commission’s “IncluCivics Report,” which revealed a lack of diversity and a pay equity gap within Metro government.
“Nashville is growing incredibly fast,” said Mel Fowler-Green, director of the Metro Human Relations Commission, a 17-person group composed of community members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. “In the past 10 years, the demographics of our city have changed considerably. The immigrant and refugee populations have skyrocketed here – and we’ve welcomed that – but we have also realized that our city leadership no longer reflects the population they serve.”
Fowler-Green said that realization started the Metro Human Relations Commission on a quest to obtain precise demographic data on city personnel, which members of the commission were surprised to learn was not easy to acquire.
“Discovering that the demographic information was not easy to get sparked lots of conversations with human resources,” said Fowler-Green. “We think this information should be readily accessible – not just to us, but to the people of Nashville. We have to be transparent and accountable for what we’re doing.”
Fowler-Green said once the commission received the data from human resources and began analyzing it, they were surprised to learn that – despite the size of their workforce – there was no diversity plan in place.
“Looking at the data, we realized we had a long way to go to fix that,” she said.
Specifically, the report found that African-American and Hispanic workers are under-represented in Metro government, and black workers are mainly concentrated in pay brackets under $40,000. Meanwhile, white workers are over-represented in 50 percent of the 50 Metro departments examined in the report. In nine departments, white employees make up 85 percent or more of the workers.
The report generated strong public reaction, and Mayor Karl Dean quickly moved to create a task force to examine the issue and offer recommendations to address diversity problems. In June, Dean accepted a report from the Diversity Advisory Committee, which included 10 recommendations to improve recruitment, hiring and promotions in Metro government.
At the same time, city HR personnel agreed to post the demographic information on a new open data portal created via executive order by Dean. But data for data’s sake is not always the best solution, said Fowler-Green.
“Even the most dedicated citizen would be challenged to make much out of a spreadsheet that comes out quarterly from HR,” she said. “It lacked any analysis or the force of transparency and accountability that we at the commission think is necessary to move forward.”
So the Metro Human Relations Commission and Code for Nashville (a subsidiary of Code for America, a volunteer nonprofit organization that brings together civic activists dedicated to building better communities through technology) worked together to develop the IncluCivics platform. IncluCivics takes the quarterly data posted by HR and renders it in user-friendly charts and graphs. It also tracks changes in the data over time so anyone can easily see where the city is in terms of workforce diversity today as well as in the past.
This is Code for Nashville’s first homegrown app and the first utility built in collaboration between Code for Nashville and a public institution.
“The app was not technically difficult to build, but it represents something quite revolutionary – a way citizens can get together and be a part in holding government accountable for the things they say they are going to do,” said Jon Staples, Code for Nashville brigade captain and principal architect for IncluCivics. “It’s also a way to be involved in the community and in governance on a local scale that I don’t think has ever been possible before.”
Judge Sheila Calloway is a juvenile court judge and one of the few minority department heads in Nashville. She served as a member of the mayor’s Diversity Advisory Committee.
“I think it’s very important for all Metro government to do a better job of addressing diversity in the workplace,” she said. “The new platform is very helpful in making this information transparent and in helping make government more transparent.”
Calloway said it’s also important from an economic development point of view.
“People that want to come to Nashville from neighboring states or cities can look at government jobs and see what the diversity here looks like,” she said. “They can see all of the department heads and see that the city has acknowledged what’s lacking, what we need, and what we’re working toward.”
Calloway said ultimately she hopes IncluCivics will help improve the perception that Metro workers are part of an exclusive network often off limits to newcomers.
“I’d like to see the perception become that Metro is not just a network of a few – it’s open to anyone, no matter what they look like, no matter what their background, no matter where they come from,” she said.
While creating the platform, Staples said he occasionally met with resistance from people who consider it antagonist toward the city or city workers.
“It’s easy to be perceived as holding people’s feet to the fire with a project like this, but really this is about helping identify problems and seeing if things are working,” he said. “It’s not about wagging fingers. Sometimes people don’t like the idea of data in the public domain because it can reflect poorly on entities, especially if it’s taken out of context. That’s not my mission. The tracker indicates there are issues, but it’s not clear what those issues are. And the tracker can be used to determine if initiatives that are put in place are actually effective. That’s the really big part of data-driven decision making and data-driven governance.”