There are many different components to government delivery. Political leadership, performance frameworks, accountability, stakeholder support – the list goes on. But one element may have resonated particularly strongly with Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore, as he toured the city’s streets in the aftermath of the recent unrest. You have to keep following up, relentlessly, to make sure that progress is made sustainable. Results can tail off if new routines and systems are not made permanent – something that can then reverse previous successes.

The violence was sparked by the death of a man in police custody, and echoed that of recent disturbances in other cities after similar incidents of police violence against black men. Eight years on from his mayoral tenure, O’Malley believes that the violent protests were a vivid reminder – if one was needed – that for public servants there is always scope for improvement, always scope to do better. “Every mayor does their very best to strike the right balance, to save as many lives as we possibly can,” he says. “What we had zero tolerance for was police misconduct. We worked at it every day.”

Looking back, looking up

Martin O’Malley moved from the mayoralty of Baltimore to the governorship of the state of Maryland – a post he held for two terms. In both of these roles he deployed a fresh approach to governing – one that used data to drive policy decisions, set goals, measure performance, and increase government transparency.

Baltimore’s high crime levels were the catalyst for his ideas, as was the success of New York’s police department in addressing systemic and long-running law and order issues. The so-called ’broken windows‘ theory held that lax enforcement of laws against petty crime creates an atmosphere in which serious crime is more likely to take place.

“New York’s success led to a revolution in performance-measured policing in cities and towns all across the United States – and one of those was Baltimore,” he recalls. “When I was elected mayor in 1999, Baltimore had allowed herself to become the most addicted, the most violent, and therefore the most abandoned city in America. That has now changed but it requires constant tending and constant work.”

After he was first elected, it soon became clear that accurate and up-to-date data and information were hardly at the fingertips of many employees in City Hall. “I remember meeting with department heads of the outgoing administration,” he says.

“I had served on the council and, knowing the huge cost of our fleet of vehicles, I asked the outgoing director of public works how many vehicles the city owned and he said it was ‘one of those things we never really got on top of’. It was something like 6,000 to 6,500 but that was city government as city government always had been – it was not government by weekly performance-measured outputs, but government by annual inputs. Nothing about it was really timely, accurate or transparent.” He set about making some changes.

Delivering on data

O’Malley’s new approach rested on the idea that real-time information could, and should, be used to underpin decision-making, prioritise scarce resources and accurately track the impact of policies and programmes. Called CitiStat, it began with crime reduction but was soon extended to other areas such as health care and education. And then as governor, he applied it statewide under the ’StateStat‘ title. Under the programmes, a 311 phone number was introduced for all city services, and then this was underpinned by performance measurement and a collaborative problem-solving approach.

“The big innovation we stumbled upon was outputs,” he says. “We found a better way of governing and it actually works, based upon timely and accurate information shared by all, rapid deployment of resources, effective tactics and strategies, and relentless follow-up. It is data-driven decision-making with a collaborative method of questions and answers played out on a common platform.”

A good illustration of how data drove decision-making in his mayoralty came after the Clinton administration approved plans to put an additional 200 police officers on Baltimore’s streets. The question was where to place hem as there were several options available.

“We could have deployed them equally to all six of the council districts,” recalls O’Malley. “Or, if we wanted to be political, we could deploy them to the districts with the highest number of primary voters. Or we could deploy them to crime hotspots in our city, where the vast majority of the shootings, robberies and homicides were taking place.”

O’Malley and his team went for the latter option and over the course of the next 10 years Baltimore achieved a bigger reduction in ‘Part 1’ crimes, such as homicide, rape, robbery and arson, than any other city in America – according to FBI data. Although the city’s drop in crime rates mirrored a national trend, as other major cities also saw large drops, it is clear that substantial progress was made.

And as governor, O’Malley enjoyed similar data-driven successes, suggesting that this new way of governing is by no means limited to cities. Eliminating childhood hunger and reducing healthcare costs are two examples of where he and his team sought to deliver real change.

“We identified on a map where the greatest numbers of children who qualified for a free lunch but received no school breakfast actually go to school,” he explains. “From there we knew where to focus our efforts and programmes, and saw student attendance and attainment rise.

“We also knew that hospital readmissions were the greatest driver of hospital costs and therefore the biggest driver of healthcare costs. We had previously had no way of putting individual health information on a common platform to better care for patients suffering from asthma or diabetes or congestive heart failure – the type of chronic conditions that are big drivers in avoidable readmissions. We created a common platform called CRISP (the Community Health Information Exchange-based Hospital Readmission Risk Prediction & Notification System) and we set a goal of reducing hospital readmissions by 10% every year. We ended up exceeding it in the very first year of trying. There is no reason why we can’t continue to make that kind of progress.”

Onward and upward?

For O’Malley, the use of data to drive decision-making represents a fundamental shift. “It’s not about excuses,” he says. “It’s not about moving left to right. It’s about moving forward. It’s about measuring performance and getting things done. It is fundamentally entrepreneurial, collaborative and intensively performance-measured.” While his re-elections as mayor and governor suggest that voters embraced his approach, the events in Baltimore indicate that there is much to do before the city has truly turned the corner – something O’Malley readily accepts. “We’re not done yet,” he agrees. “There are still a lot of lives that have to be saved.”

Widely seen as a potential contender for the next Democratic presidential nomination, O’Malley goes on to say that technologies such as the internet or GIS, together with performance management and a greater focus on delivery, should be seen as tools, rather than the end goal. “They are the means to a new beginning, a new and better way of governing, a new and better way of getting things done and that I believe is the way of the future,” he concludes. “It is a crowd-sourced healing of the deepest kind and it allows us to achieve that better and more connected, safer and more secure and prosperous society that all of us want to hand on to our kids.”

Such comments stir memories of Mario Cuomo’s famous edict that politicians ‘campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. O’Malley’s track record of electoral success fused with data-driven government delivery suggests that he is one of those few political leaders able to combine the two successfully. Only time will tell where his new way of governing will take him in the future – watch this space.

 

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