Lack of Raw Data

Data pertaining to units of local government can be hard to come by. In a few cases, comparative data are gathered at the national or state level (the FBI’s collection of municipal crime statistics, school performance data assembled by the Indiana Department of Education, data maintained by the State Fire Marshal, the State Library, etc.). In other cases, no central repository of data exists. Garbage collection—a critical service provided by local government—illustrates the problem. One cannot simply call an elected or appointed official and secure a municipality’s cost per ton of garbage collected. Some towns and cities perform this function themselves; others contract it out. Some organize garbage collection as a stand-alone function; others assign it to departments that perform other services (e.g. street repair, snowplowing, etc.). Municipal accounting systems tend to be organized by object codes rather than by programs, and overhead costs are assigned differently from municipality to municipality.

As a result, reliable data are not readily available in the case of garbage collection. Similar difficulties are encountered in assessing the performances of parks and recreation programs, vehicle maintenance programs and some health programs. We know from experience that some elected and appointed officials are reluctant to share information, even though they may be required to do so by law. In part, this is due to the time involved in responding to inquiries of this kind. Further, some elected and appointed officials fear the manner in which data could be used. They are concerned, perhaps correctly in some cases, that requested data could be used to portray a city, town or an individual department unfairly. This further complicates the data gathering process and, as a result, complicates research into the effectiveness and efficiency of local government.