Handing power to cities could help government make better policy

Research scientists prepare a batch of Malaria vaccine in 2007. Image: Getty.

How do good ideas become reality? Solutions to complex problems do not come quickly. It takes an average of 10 years to take a vaccine from pre-clinical study to implementation, without counting years of basic research. Malaria, discovered in 1880, still has no effective vaccine. 

Political solutions are just as unpredictable. Fourteen years after the discovery of the Ozone Hole, the Montreal Protocol came into force to ban CFCs – yet, the government thinks it could take over 50 years to tackle air pollution by phasing out diesel cars. Many of the UK’s most endemic problems like flat-lining productivity seem destined to plague us for eternity. 

Solutions also unravel quickly, it took New Labour five years to reduce the number of rough-sleepers in England from 2,000 to under 500, but only six years for the Tories to let it shoot up to 4000 again.

A timeline of vaccine development. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is no wonder good policy is rare and slow. Policy need political and public buy-in, sustainable financing, monitoring and tweaking, and flexibility to adapt to changing environments and technology. 

There are places that appear to do policy better. Scandinavia balance a progressive welfare state with high taxation and public confidence. Likewise New Zealand, despite having one of the shortest democratic cycles in the developed world, manages to far exceed the living standards and prosperity of many western countries. What links them?

  • Population: Sweden has a population just shy of 10m. None of the other Scandinavian countries, nor New Zealand, top 5.6m. Fewer people makes it easier to put policies in place. They require less administration, less resource and shorter consultation periods.
  • Culture: Largely they are culturally homogeneous. Many studies show people feel more comfortable with state intervention, or redistribution, that helps people like them. New Zealand’s recognition of their bi-culture has a similar basis. 
  • Strong Executives: The New Zealand treasury maintains a core focus on living standards, providing checks and balances on a short-term political cycle that still allows for long-term prosperity growth. It’s something that evolves independent of National or Labour governments, recently bringing measures of wellbeing into their policy analysis. 

So can the UK replicate Finland’s start-up culture, or Sweden’s gender equality? How can Spain learn from Ireland’s reduction in unemployment, or Italy from Iceland’s banking recovery?

The answer lies in cities. Testing policy on their smaller populations, or areas can replicate the agility of smaller innovative countries. Testing also helps mitigate mistakes. Failure is magnified when policy is centralised and at scale. If cities or regions can prove policies work they can also act as a brake for those that don’t.

Take Universal Basic Income. In January 2017, 10 per cent of the Finnish unemployed population were contacted by their national welfare body to take part in a study on how a flat universal payment over traditional welfare payments affects job incentives. It’s telling that the study designers are worried about the small sample size, and statistical robustness not media reactions. Similar studies on different populations are underway in Utrecht and Kenya:  why couldn’t one by done in Edinburgh or Belfast?

The graduated process of pilots means governments can overcome the stumbling blocks of policymaking, be transparent about both the upsides and downsides of new policies, and give civil society or businesses opportunity to prepare for them. Matthew Taylor has spoken of how important this will be for any progress towards a Universal Basic Income in the UK.


Piloting will mean being willing to say when things don’t work. Universal credit was rightly trailed in London Boroughs like Hounslow, before nationwide roll-out – but evidence showed it led to food shortages and evictions. Instead of learning where the policy was failing, the Conservatives doubled down and centralised further. 

Cities will need more power to help the rest of the country. If London could model the effects of changing council tax boundaries, or new taxes on undeveloped land, many more could benefit from the evidence. But City Hall will need to be aware of the local dynamics behind outcomes. Lessons learnt in Chiswick might not apply in Chester: establishing the causes of success of failure will be vital. 

Testing policies in smaller areas also needs an effective mechanism over the top for sharing and spreading ideas. I’ve argued before how a more federal UK could help this. Long-delays to roll out ideas to other towns and cities could cause resentment and increase regional inequality.

Similarly good policy should flow as easily in countries as between them. Fora like the OECD have a role here, as do the C40. Networks of think-tanks and political grouping are also important but need greater involvement from those in power and not just activists or oppositions.

Pilots cannot be used as an excuse for those above the city level not to make decisions. Endlessly delaying roll-outs for more studies is a stalling mechanism that helps no-one. Access to 5G technology — now as important a service as water or gas — for example cannot be left to cities alone.

As well as their size cities have bountiful qualities to be at the forefront of policy research.

  • World-class Universities: Policies, like vaccine research also needs underlying basic research on problems to inform strategies further down the line. This means greater government-academic collaboration as policymakers have always championed between universities and industry.
  • Cultural Diversity: Policy development tends to be dominated by one style of thinking. Although it is improving, think-tankers, civil servants and political staffers tend to come from similar backgrounds and career paths. More artists, designers or scientists in policy-making could improve the willingness to test, learn, tweak and re-test: prototypes and beta versions just don’t appear in politics. Cities are full of innovators. 
  • Tech-Savvy: Policy testing gets harder as individuals become more and more connected. How do you isolate a section of the internet or the Internet of Things? The challenge is that it also becomes increasingly important, the use of AI in public services, driverless vehicles, and other emerging technologies will all need to be assessed rigorously and designed with pubic confidence and engagement at the heart of them. The concentration of knowledge in cities make them the perfect place to test digital tech for the rest of the country. 

Even in a world as changeable as 2017 there is still room in cities for experimentation. 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.