The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Early on, the primary challenges of applying CitiStat at the state level were of both scale and philosophy. CitiStat had been tailored to Baltimore’s $2.4 billion budget and 15,000 employees, while StateStat needed to stretch to Maryland’s $30 billion budget and 80,000 employees. Beyond the mere logistics, it quickly became clear that the role StateStat had to play would also have to be different. While a city is expected to provide tangible services, a state government’s role is more that of a liaison between federal agencies, counties, and municipalities. Simply accurately tracking an agency’s progress became trickier. If your goal is to clear downed trees quickly and efficiently, you’re dealing with a finite number of moving parts; if you’re trying to increase the number of woman- and minority-owned businesses across the state, you’re dealing with a much broader network of causes and incremental solutions, many of which tend to slip through the cracks of an Excel spreadsheet. “There can be a hundred reasons why the needle’s not moving,” said Catherine Motz, O’Malley’s deputy chief of staff, who helps run StateStat. “So you have to start thinking about the problems from a wider angle.” The solution, in many cases, was to use StateStat as a tool to help push agencies out of their hierarchical silos—the natural state of most
bureaucracies—and force them to work together to solve statewide problems.
The first StateStat program, known as BayStat, is an example of such collaboration. It hinges on the participation of six state agencies to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay—a challenge that falls under the jurisdiction of no single agency. Under BayStat, the Department of Natural Resources has been working closely with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which has organized battalions of inmates to plant bay grass and more than a million trees in strategic locations. That new growth helps prevent runoff and stop erosion, two of the major causes of pollution in the bay. Under the same program, inmates have also made more than 9,000 metal cages to seed baby oysters, which help to filter the bay water and buttress the local economy.
Another collaborative StateStat program is partially responsible for helping to launch the most far-reaching statewide health information exchange in the country. A couple of years ago, the Chesapeake Regional Information System for Our Patients (CRISP) was slow in getting off the ground because hospital CEOs were uncertain about signing on to a new program. Made aware of the problem through a State-Stat review, O’Malley convened a meeting with the state’s top hospital CEOs. Once they were all there, he “pointed at each one and said, ‘Are you going to participate? Are you going to participate?’ ” said Scott Afzal, a program director at CRISP, chuckling at the memory. “That kind of commitment doesn’t happen in other states.” CRISP is now working with Maryland hospitals to track and share information about patients (with the patients’ consent), so that, among other things, an emergency room doctor in, say, Anne Arundel County, knows if his patient was recently treated over in Montgomery County. CRISP, a nonprofit funded by state, federal, and private sources, is also beginning to partner with primary care doctors, so that doctors receive an email when one of their patients is admitted to a Maryland hospital.
Getting independent state agencies to work together is one of the toughest jobs a governor faces. In March, after sitting in on a StateStat performance review, O’Malley pointed me to precisely that challenge in his own government. At the meeting, I had listened to three assembled agencies—the Departments of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR), Business and Economic Development (DBEV), and Veterans Affairs (VA)—discuss how to solve the problem of veteran unemployment in the state. Each had passed the responsibility like a hot potato. “So the VA guys are like, ‘We don’t do job placement. That’s DBEV.’ But DBEV does high-level outreach, so they don’t do it. They say it’s DLLR,” O’Malley said, giving me a recap. “So now it’s DLLR’s job to hire veteran specialists to place veterans—and that’s not the VA’s thing? How much sense does that make?”
O’Malley, who is clearly fluent in the way that government functions behind the scenes (as well as in his agencies’ awkward abbreviations), pointed out the absurdity that can arise when agencies don’t work together, and executives are not aware of how services are being delivered. During the debate about the sequester earlier this year, for example, Congress was careful not to cut Veterans Affairs. But if Congress had just dug a little deeper, it would have seen that many of the programs that actually affect veterans are run by the Departments of Labor, Housing, and Education. “People don’t understand how the government works,” O’Malley said. “But that’s what StateStat can help with. You can use it to shine a light on what’s really going on.”
The complexity that O’Malley is grappling with is one of the central dilemmas at every level of government today. Because of long-standing fears of centralized control, the majority of government programs in America are structured in tiers. In some cases, federal, state, and local governments share administrative duties. In other cases, private entities, like nonprofits or corporate contractors, work with one or more levels of government to deliver services on a contractual basis. This results in often clumsy, slow services and high administrative costs. Citizens, flummoxed, can’t figure out who to hold accountable for what.
Johns Hopkins University political scientist Steven Teles predicts that the growing complexity of government, rather than its size, will be the issue that dominates American politics over the next thirty years. If so, politicians who have figured out how to “shine a light on” that complexity, like O’Malley, will be crucial to making government work.
Halfway through his second term as governor, O’Malley has a handful of big legislative victories to be proud of, as well as some managerial ones. While his state, along with the rest of the county, is still limping from the recession, he can brag about the fact that the Maryland school system has been ranked first in the nation for five years running, up from third place in 2008; that his administration was able to hold down the cost of tuition at state colleges and universities; and that crime rates, following trends across the country, are the lowest ever recorded in the state. He can also brag about incremental but important progress on issues like pollution in the Chesapeake and eliminating the DNA backlog from Maryland’s criminal justice sector.
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