The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Progress was, again, incremental—a percentage point increase this week, a half percent the next—but after a year, it began to add up. By mid-2001, absenteeism had dropped by nearly 50 percent in some agencies, and overtime costs had dropped by 40 percent city-wide, excluding the police department. By the end of the year, the city had saved $6 million in overtime pay alone and $13.2 million in personnel costs. By 2003, savings were up $40 million. By 2007, the mayor’s office announced that CitiStat had saved a total of $350 million, mostly by cutting waste, according to a 2003 report by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government.
In the summer of 2000, O’Malley and his team had started with just one hunk of the government, the Bureau of Solid Waste Management, and by the end of O’Malley’s first term every department in the city had a CitiStat meeting. By 2003, they had also revamped Baltimore’s 311 call center so city officials could compile a list of citizens’ needs and complaints, track the time it took different departments to deliver services, and improve the response, agency by agency. In 2002, if a citizen complained about a missed trash pickup, he was likely to wait for days. By 2004, the trash would be whisked away within twenty-four hours 82 percent of the time. In 2002, it took more than a week to remove an abandoned vehicle; by 2004, it took five days. “It became this game of limbo,” Gallagher says. “Say it took two weeks to clean a dirty alley. Once we got to an 80 percent completion rate within two weeks, we would drop the bar and say we’re going to do it in ten days, and then seven. Productivity increased, but people also started seeing it as a challenge. How low can we go?”
When attempting to describe what CitiStat is, people often reference Moneyball, that 2003 book by Michael Lewis, which was later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. In it, Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, uses a series of data points to drive his scouting decisions and, in doing so, successfully assembles a crack baseball team on a budget. The same general theory applies to O’Malley’s style of governance: you collect all the data you can, week after week, until eventually you start to see trends—which program has the most impact? Which doesn’t seem to be working at all? And that’s where those regularly scheduled, collaborative, data-driven meetings come in. Every other week or once a month, you get together with a department’s leadership, look at the data, see what the department is doing right or wrong, and then make a game plan for what should happen next.
The idea of CitiStat is not exactly revolutionary in concept, but in the world of government performance, it’s been ground-breaking. In 2004, Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovations praised CitiStat for making the city’s government more cost-effective and accountable. By 2007, Baltimore City Hall had become a Mecca of sorts for visiting delegations from all over the country, who’d come to observe the program in action. After a while, so many delegations were traipsing through the city hall, O’Malley joked that CitiStat had become his “tourism promotion tool.”
For the most part, however, other cities that tried to emulate CitiStat were not successful. So why did it work in Baltimore? Behn, who studies these programs across the country, credits, among other things, O’Malley’s leadership. For one, O’Malley stands out among most politicians because he has been willing to set measurable goals—something most politicians avoid because it can have the effect of “setting you up for failure,” Behn said. “If you don’t reach the number you put out there, you’ve given your opponents some talking points.” Behn also credits what he calls O’Malley’s “executive buy-in.” Implementing a program like CitiStat demands a significant cultural shift in a bureaucracy, “so the message from very top has to be, ‘You can’t just keep your head down and wait for us to stop asking questions. This isn’t going away. I’m here and I’m watching,’ ” he said.
It’s also helpful that O’Malley is, by all counts, a bit of a wonk by nature. When he starts talking about an agency’s statistics or getting “graphs moving in the right direction”—his favorite phrase—his eyelids peak into perfect pink triangles and his voice speeds up. While discussing different projects with me over the course of reporting this story, he would regularly cite numbers from progress reports and memos, clicking fluently through data sheets to get to the graph he was looking for, and rattling off statistics. (“If I say something wrong, raise the bullshit flag,” he told a few members of his staff who were gathered around. Once, someone corrected him by a couple percentage points, but for the most part he was spot on.) Part of it, clearly, is that he enjoys the numbers, but the other part is strategic. “If I see one of the secretaries at the elevator, I want to be able to say, ‘How’s that going? I notice those numbers were going down,’ ” O’Malley told me. “It’s important that they know I’m paying attention.”
While O’Malley’s CompStat and CitiStat are fairly widely regarded as successes—both are still being used today under Mayor Rawlings-Blake—they are not without their pitfalls and energetic critics. Baltimore city officials, for example, regularly complained that CitiStat simply demands that they collect and analyze more data with less money and staff, and then submit to grueling cross-examinations at biweekly meetings. (The Sun once described a department head at a CitiStat meeting “looking as if he needs a cigarette and a blindfold.”) Others, including criminologists, insist that the media has been too quick to credit CompStat for reductions in crime. In the past decade, crime rates have dropped across the country for reasons criminologists can’t pinpoint. Some attribute it to the fact that people stopped using leaded paint and gasoline; others correlate it with weather patterns and street lights. Tweezing causality from correlation is never an easy task.
In late 2005, when O’Malley announced his intention to run for governor of Maryland, the campaign became as much a referendum on O’Malley as it was on CompStat and CitiStat. When attacking O’Malley personally, his political opponents tended to paint him as derisive, citing, among other things, his public feud with Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who O’Malley believed was not being ambitious enough with her prosecutions. (Once, he unleashed a profanity-strewn tirade about the attorney in front of reporters.) “He has his own game plan in mind,” one former city employee told me recently. “You’re either with it, or you’re off the team.”
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