Case and Materials

Mayor Curtatone’s Culture of Curiosity: Building Data Capabilities at Somerville City Hall

  • Authors Lisa Cox, Jorrit de Jong

Last Updated

Data and Evidence

North America, Northeast Region, United States


Using data-informed decision-making capabilities, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone created a “culture of curiosity” that empowered city employees to pursue successful innovations such as a dedicated constituent services phone line, a more transparent budgeting process, and a new school-based nutrition program.

How did Curtatone use a data-driven governing approach to increase efficiency, equity, and accountability? And how can you use data to identify opportunities for improvement in your community?

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For sixteen years, longer than any mayor in the city’s history, Mayor Joseph Curtatone has led his hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. The case begins in January 2020, with the mayor looking ahead to his recently-won, two-year term—and to the city’s future without him at the helm. Although he would never feel his work was done, he wondered whether it was time to pass the baton, and if not now, when?

Curtatone, with his intense curiosity for how things work and how they can be improved, brought data and evidence-based decision making to Somerville—a city with a checkered past of corruption and controversy—when he was inaugurated in 2004. He and his team quickly stood up a performance-management system called SomerStat—a constituent services 311 call line under the tagline “one call to city hall”; revamped the city’s budget to be more transparent and tied to strategic goals; and championed an evidence-based, systems-thinking approach to reducing obesity among the city’s schoolchildren and other residents. By 2006, Somerville was hailed a “Model City” by the Boston Globe.

The case details how Mayor Curtatone’s culture of curiosity permeated city hall and led to numerous positive outcomes and innovations. One former chief of staff said that the city “runs on Joe Power,” but Curtatone felt that he empowered others to own their ideas. “I’ve tried to…ensure that the change is not going to be driven by me. I’ll be out front. I’ll take the hits, I’ll fight for it, so I hope, at least, people feel, ‘The mayor—he’s got our back.”

Still, Curtatone knew that “bad leadership can bring down any organization in a city real fast. And it takes years to recover.” He wondered when the right time would be to go and what would remain of the data-informed, decision-making capabilities that he had helped build. What could he do to ensure that even after he was out of office, his nearly two-decade investment would continue to pay dividends to the people of Somerville?

Learning Objectives

This case study is part of a portfolio of cases that are designed to help city leaders build data-analytic capabilities in city government. The overarching learning objectives of the portfolio are to help participants explore and understand 1) why to use data; 2) how to use data; and 3) what to do to become—and remain—a more informed city hall.

This case explores each of the learning objectives in more detail:

How data can make a city better:

  • How can using data make a city more effective, efficient, equitable, accountable, and collaborative?

How to use data as a leader:

  • How can you ask for and interpret relevant data, probe assumptions and beliefs, and manage performance?
  • How do you identify opportunities to use data to improve all aspects of government functions across the board?

What to do to become or remain a city hall that uses data:

  • How do you lead organizational change and combat resistance to data use?
  • How do you generate, understand, and maintain data that is as complete, accurate, timely, and as accessible as possible across the city?
  • How do you instill, across city hall, leadership that builds and maintains a data-informed city?
  • How do you create the necessary conditions for a data-informed organization?
  • How do you build a learning organization?

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