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Article Article March 16th, 2016

Beth Blauer: pushing performance across US government

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Data and analytics open new opportunities to help government improve its impact

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Not enough new leaders have emerged who believe in the power of data and evidence

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At John Hopkins University, Blauer's team are creating a national baseline for cities' use of data

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Beth Blauer lives and breathes better government. It's her mission. Her ambition. Her driving force. And yet hers is not the standard government résumé. Not many lawyers wind up working in juvenile probation, for example. And not many - if any - juvenile protection offices make the leap to being de facto chief operating officer for a large American state.

So, what's her story? What powered this meteoric career arc? Underpinning and connecting these roles was a passion for the power of data and analytics to improve performance - and it was this recognition that helped unlock doors and open new opportunities to help government improve its impact.

She credits her experiences as a frontline juvenile protection officer in the state of Maryland with being critical to shaping her thinking. “I was very vocal about what I saw as the disconnect between what I was required to do as my daily work and the families that our services were impacting,” she recalls. “There was no link between what I was doing and our sister agencies which we interacted with at an administrative level. We were all collecting data about the same families and providing services to the same people, but I had absolutely no access to their information, even though it would have made my life a lot easier as a probation officer and helped me make better decisions.”

In practical terms, this meant that when she was asked to decide whether a child should return to its family after committing a crime, or go to jail, she didn't know if that child was in school the day before or receiving any government assistance. She also didn't know if the child had a stable environment to go home to - all things that you'd think would be available for better decision-making.

Not surprisingly, these experiences made a powerful impression. “I became a big advocate of intra-agency data sharing as a means for us to make better decisions in the lives of the people we were trying to impact, but also in order to reform government,” she says. “Government had to do this - it wasn't whether or not it was technically feasible, because it was the only way that we would be able to evolve.”

State of the state

Blauer's legal training meant that she viewed her stint in probation as a temporary job - one where she had more freedom to stand up and criticise than those who saw themselves being there for the long term. This ‘squeaky wheel' approach, however, drew her to the attention of incoming governor Martin O'Malley, who had prioritised data and delivery during his terms as mayor of the city of Baltimore.

Blauer, who had been serving as chief of staff for Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, became his director of StateStat - the state's performance management programme - and also headed up his Delivery Unit. These twin roles meant she oversaw about 85% of the state's budget and a comparable amount of its workforce.

“I had to ensure that the governor's cabinet agencies were making progress towards achieving our strategic goals,” she explains. “StateStat was very much about using data to achieve operational efficiencies - it wasn't about ‘delivery' as such. Instead, we aimed to make more efficient decisions in order to achieve better services to the public but also save money, and a lot of our focus was on figuring out how we can eradicate waste in government.”  O'Malley, though, was keen for its remit to be extended.

“Like many of us working for him, we would have these conversations about the things that were keeping him up at night,” she recalls. “He wanted to know how many kids would have to be shipped out of Baltimore in body bags before we would do something about crime, and how long we were going to wait for languishing schools to do more for our children, and how come we were doing well in some areas but worse in others.”

Into Barber's shop

It was at this time that O'Malley met Sir Michael Barber, the former head of the Number 10 Delivery Unit in the UK. “They had this instant connection because he really wanted to laser in on these specific outcomes, and we used these new delivery techniques as a way to do that,” she explains. “StateStat meant we were already analysing thousands of data points a week, but we were now using it to also make it cross-cutting, make our agencies work together and to frame it around outcomes.”

Mayor O'Malley's subsequent achievements, such as the state's public schools ranking number one in America for five years, driving infant mortality rate down 21% and reducing preventable hospitalisations by 11.5%, were not enough to power him to the Democratic presidential nomination. However, Blauer credits his leadership as being absolutely pivotal to the better citizen outcomes that were achieved during his time in the governor's chair.

“It wouldn't have worked without a leader who was willing to stand up and say that this was how we were going to run government,” she says firmly. “He was very clear that everything we would do and say would be positioned around citizen outcomes. I also knew he was going to have my back when I had to go to cabinet secretaries and chiefs of police and housing authorities to tell them that - with our help - they would have to change the way they did their jobs. Without that level of backing I would have been totally ineffective.”

Blauer, who is speaking from her experience of helping different governments refocus their efforts around delivery and performance, goes on to say that without leadership this approach is doomed from the start. Unfortunately, she doubts whether a new generation of leaders is emerging to carry the torch forward. “We need to do more to demonstrate the benefits,” she says. “When we talk to leaders today about data and evidence and analytics - we have to do a better job at selling why it's so important, rather than having their eyes glaze over. We should do this by telling the story of the people this will have an impact on - both citizens and government employees.”

Blauer's passion comes through loud and clear, so much so that it is hard to imagine any political leader daring to raise an objection, but she is also clear that more needs to be done to unlock the full potential of data and analytics in government.

“In the private sector, there are computer engineers who are developing the tools and the product managers who communicate why they are necessary - thereby bridging the gap between the problems that technology is meant to solve and the technology itself,” she points out. “We don't have that in government right now - but we need to make this part of the process in order to help achieve better outcomes and a stronger impact.”

Back to school

Blauer can nowadays be found on the campus of John Hopkins University, leading its Center for Government Excellence. Boosted by financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, she and her team are spearheading its What Works Cities initiative. “Over the next couple of years we will be going out to at least 100 midsize cities across the US,” says Blauer. “We will be creating a national baseline for cities' and mayors' ability to use data and evidence and looking at how we can help advance practices, which for us are open data and performance analytics. In particular, we are looking at how data can be connected to outcomes.” Blauer's role at the university - her first academic position - gives her the opportunity to deploy her knowledge and insights across the US and beyond. “It's all very exciting - especially as we are just getting started on this journey.”

Watch this space.



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