So what happens to an unsuccessful candidate for the US presidency? When the campaign music stops and the media spotlight shifts elsewhere, some go back to governing – like Senator Marco Rubio or Governor John Kasich. Others, like Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton, don’t have government jobs to return to but still maintain a national profile.
In Martin O’Malley’s case, he returned home to Baltimore and is now happily ensconced in a variety of teaching positions in academia and as an advisor to MetroLab, a not-for-profit dedicated to connecting cities and universities as partners in innovating and implementing “smart city” policies.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he has permanently stepped back from the arena. His is a profile which remains high – a testament not only to his deep knowledge of government but also to a visible presence on social media, his strenuous travel schedule supporting local and state Democrats across the country, and his enduring curiosity about new ways of strengthening systems and outcomes.
Mixing politics with performance
It is clear from just a few moments in O’Malley’s company that his lifelong belief in the power of government to do good continues to burn strongly. “You’re not going to be able to restore the waters of our nation, for example, or step up to the tremendous threat and opportunity of climate change without a government which is going to actually work,” he says. He goes on to admit, though, that a passion for the nuts and bolts of policymaking does not make for an electrifying stump speech.
“It is hard to talk about on the trail,” he says. “It’s hard to talk about the business management aspect of getting things done without it being boring to people. Results can help you communicate, but last year any experience in government was a liability. I ran as a change candidate, but not enough change. People wanted change, but it was a sledgehammer to break the kitchen table kind of change – and they got it.”
As befits someone born in Washington, DC, politics enveloped O’Malley’s professional life from the get-go. A lawyer by training, he went to work as assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore before running for the city council at 28, where he served for eight years. He then ran for mayor, serving for another eight years, and then was elected governor of Maryland in 2007, stepping down in 2015 to say that he was being “elevated to the role of citizen”.
His sixteen years in office were transformative in many ways. “When I ran for mayor of Baltimore, we had become the most violent, the most addicted, the most abandoned city in America,” he recalls. “But we went on to achieve the greatest crime reduction of America’s largest cities. And when I was governor we had to do a lot of tough and unpopular things early on. But when it came to re-election we were able to make a pretty compelling argument that we were outperforming Virginia and Pennsylvania. This was communicated, and we won by twice the margin at re-election in what was a tough year for Democrats – 2010.”
This success, he continues, was a reflection of voters’ understanding that despite moves to increase sales tax by a penny, for example, the prize was well worth any pain. “It didn’t necessarily mean that people liked the unpopular things, but they understood the broader story of progress achieved,” he explains. “Leaders have to do a better job of telling these stories in a shorter period of time in order for the public to distinguish between the things that work and the things that are just noise.”
A better way of governing
O’Malley’s passion for public service is matched only by his determination to search for and deploy new ways to achieve better outcomes. For him, this meant harnessing the power of data and analytics, and matching them with the knowledge and expertise of staff in what was a more open and collaborative style of governing. “There is a tremendous reservoir of commitment, talent and knowledge and experience in every government – whether it’s county, whether it’s city, whether it’s state, whether it’s federal,” he points out. “Sometimes, when we should share stories of effective or innovative things that we figured out how to do, people would ask how we did it, and usually the answer was that we asked the people who were doing the job.”
And thanks to the digital revolution ensuring that information has never been more available, he believes that government leaders can now rethink their entire approach to achieving the outcomes they seek. “The command and control structure is typically the way we have thought about getting things done in government,” says O’Malley. “But you see a change in this because of the information age and the ability to have everybody know all of the information at the same time in open and transparent ways.”
He is keen to stress, though, that leadership remains vital. “We’ve never had more information available in a more timely way than we do today, and yet it so easy to become awash in trivia,” he says. “Leadership presence is so important. But in the information age, without the performance management, the metrics, the radical commitment to openness and transparency, as a leader you can’t get anything done. Not only is this necessary to drive a big bureaucracy but it is now expected in a democracy. Mayors have had an easier time grasping this because the things they deliver have always been very visible. They are always front and centre on visible things like trash, crime and streetlights.”
What is a ‘stat’ programme exactly?
As both mayor and governor, O’Malley used real-time data to underpin decision-making and accurately track the impact of his policies. In Baltimore this was called CitiStat, and then as governor he applied it across Maryland under what was christened StateStat. But what did these programmes actually involve?
“The elements of any stat process are essentially the same,” he replies. “They involve having timely and accurate information and sharing it with everyone. It’s also about rapid deployment of resources and effective tactics and strategies, with their effectiveness being measurable in terms of better or worse outcomes. Each of these elements comes into play with the conversations that not only include the executive and his or her command circle but also their counterparts in each of the line agencies.”
He goes on to say that he would advise any leader seeking to implement such a system to allocate about 30% of their time to operations, as well as understanding exactly how the process of governing actually works. The best way to do this, he believes, is to have a visible presence – either in person or via other means.
“I rotated the amount of time I spent in meetings, but even if I wasn’t there I got the briefing memos in my briefing book,” he recalls. “I’d mark them up with a pen, always careful to mark up two ‘good jobs’ before I circled one thing to be critical of. So there is a physical presence but you are also able to be present in other ways, including writing personalised thank you notes to the people who have done a good job. You know you’re not getting a cash bonus, so a thank you note is a big deal for people who have worked their entire careers doing something for the common good.”
The next chapter
So, what’s next for O’Malley? His track record in Baltimore and Maryland should provide an effective buttress to any future political campaign, but it’s worth asking if there is a link today between good citizen outcomes and politics. After all, the most successful politicians are not always those who can point to the best governing results. O’Malley, though, is keeping the faith. “I think citizens are still sorting through the advent of this information age,” he concludes. “And awash as we are now with so many details from so many channels, and now complicated by fake news and everything else, I think we as an electorate are still sorting through this.”
Certainly, the decision by his political action committee to commission a 2020 poll and visit early primary and caucus states tell a story of someone who is not yet willing to stand down from the campaign trail in perpetuity. But that’s for the future. Right now, the lecture hall and seminar room await.
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