The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Encore?: O’Malley’s data-driven style of management has earned him accolades as both a mayor and a governor, leaving pundits to wonder where he’s going next. (Jay Baker/Office of Governor Martin O’Malley)
The governor is hungry.
Brown paper bag in hand, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley strides into a conference room on the fourth floor of an old government building in downtown Annapolis. “I brought lunch,” he whispers to no one in particular and, stooping slightly in the way that people do when they enter a meeting late, takes a seat. For a moment, he is quiet.
He’d spent the morning in discussion with various members of the state legislature, which is in session just a few steps away at the statehouse on the hill. Up there, laws are being shaped and votes cast, mostly in the governor’s favor, but it’s down here, in this windowless room, packed with staff from three of Maryland’s state agencies and his own executive team, that O’Malley’s political impact is deepest. In 2000, as a young mayor of Baltimore, he pioneered this type of meeting—biweekly, multi-agency, data-driven performance reviews—and thirteen years later they’re still the cornerstone of his legacy as a politician.
“So that’s the carrot at the end of the stick that you hope the community colleges are going to close in after?” O’Malley asks, breaking his short silence. He leans forward in his chair, his elbows on the table and the contents of his lunch—a dry deli sandwich, a bag of potato chips—lined up in front of him like a control panel.
“That’s right, sir,” a man in the back of the room says. They’re referring to an incentive to get students to use Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s online Workforce Dashboard. It was designed to help colleges, businesses, and job seekers get a snapshot of employment opportunities in the state, but also to allow the state to gather better data on who’s looking for jobs, where, and with what skills, to improve both monitoring and outreach efforts. As of now, not enough people are using the Dashboard to make it a valuable tool.
“I know everyone’s got budget constraints, but why don’t we all talk about how to market this more?” the governor asks, and as is typical in these meetings, the attention turns to an array of charts, maps, and digital reams of Excel spreadsheets, each illustrating the nuts and bolts of the program, the population it’s serving, and the various outputs and inputs and outcomes over the past few months. The idea is to use data like a scalpel to dissect how a government program works, to pinpoint where, exactly, it’s breaking down, and then to use these collaborative meetings to solve the problem at hand.
“We gotta get those numbers up,” O’Malley says, gesturing to one graph in particular and taking a bite of the sandwich. In addition to the Department of Labor, the Departments of Business and Economic Development (DBEV) and Veterans Affairs are also present. “What about DBEV? Can you guys help with this?” he asks, still chewing.
And with that, the governor launches a spirited question-and-answer session—he compares it to a cross-examination—that lasts for the better part of forty-five minutes, his voice sometimes muffled by mouthfuls of bread. As the meeting unspools, the topics shift, from the jobs Web site to foreclosure rates to reducing recidivism among recently released convicts.
Nearly an hour later, the governor stops for some air. He attends meetings like this only about once every couple months, usually delegating the day-to-day management to his executive staff, but it’s clear he enjoys the role. He leans back in his chair and wipes the smudges of his lunch off his iPad with his green-striped tie. “Sorry, Sam,” he says, chuckling and turning to one of his staffers, who usually heads up these meetings. “The witness is yours!”
O’Malley is not the kind of person who’s afraid to take over a meeting. “I’m an operations guy,” he tells me afterward, partly by way of explanation. “I’ve always liked digging into the numbers, figuring out what’s going on and doing the kind of analysis that the other guys won’t do.” In the hallway after the meeting, two staffers corroborate the point. He seems so much more relaxed in meetings like that, they say, when he’s not “doing all the politician stuff.”
In truth, O’Malley, who is fifty and handsome in a Kennedy sort of way, has made a career out of all the politician stuff, chomping his way up the political food chain like a man hungry for more than a deli sandwich. After serving as a Baltimore city councilman in the 1990s, he was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1999 and then governor of Maryland seven years later, where he’ll remain until 2015. Because of term limits, he can’t run again. Every pundit in America has predicted he’s going to run for president in 2016, and O’Malley has done everything he can to encourage that speculation, short of outright admitting it’s true.
As governor, he’s pushed a series of bills that are all but guaranteed to impress Democratic primary and caucus voters three years from now, on topics ranging from guns (against), gay marriage (for), the death penalty (against), medical marijuana (for), and implementing Dream Act-like policies at Maryland’s colleges and universities. Just as Bill Clinton did in the 1980s, when he too was a relative unknown, O’Malley has also sought positions in recent years that have allowed him to sidle into the national limelight. In both 2011 and 2012, he served as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and he’s since stayed on as the finance chairman, which will allow him to continue to meet top donors. During the election last year, he was a regular fixture on the talk show circuit, often playing the role of President Barack Obama’s personal attack dog. In one interview with ABC’s This Week last summer, O’Malley managed to mention former Governor Mitt Romney’s “Swiss bank accounts” and “offshore” tax havens seventeen times in three minutes flat.
With that iron message discipline, plus his standing as one of the Democrats’ most successful governors (with thirty statehouses in GOP hands, the Dems’ roster is slim), O’Malley won a coveted primetime speaking slot for the second time (he spoke in 2004, too) at the Democratic National Convention last September. He whiffed it—again, just as Clinton did in 1988—but spent the remaining time juggling a packed schedule of schmooze, addressing swing state delegates by day and jamming with his Irish rock band, O’Malley’s March, by night. In recent years, the governor has also made public forays into Iowa and New Hampshire and launched a political action committee, the O’Say Can You See PAC, to raise money that he will be at liberty to distribute, one of his critics groused, “like favor-doing fairy dust,” to fellow Democrats before the midterm races in 2014.
Within Maryland, O’Malley’s reputation is middling and wrapped up in his rocket-propelled trajectory. He is known to be effective, but also brash and impatient. (He has a habit of feuding publicly with officials who he doesn’t believe are doing their jobs with enough zeal.) At this point, only 17 percent of Marylanders would “definitely vote” for him if he ran for president, according to a recent Washington Post poll, a dismal showing that his critics chalk up to what is often described as his ravenous ambition—a characteristic that has tended to rub people the wrong way.
Outside of Maryland, O’Malley’s reputation is limited for the most part to “Isn’t that the guy from The Wire?” The creator of that famous, and famously cynical, HBO series about crime and politics in Baltimore, David Simon, has said that O’Malley is just one of several inspirations for his fictional, stats-driven mayor, Tommy Carcetti, but it’s an association that has dogged the governor for more than a decade, much to his chagrin.
But for the vast majority of Americans, O’Malley simply has no reputation at all. Last fall, after giving a speech at Senator Tom Harkin’s Iowa steak fry fund-raiser, a local woman told the Washington Post that she thought the speech was fine, but she couldn’t remember who was doing the talking. “Deval Patrick?” she says, mistaking him for the governor of Massachusetts, who is black. “Oh damn Mike McNally? An Irish name?”
The truth is, what makes O’Malley stand out is not his experience, his gravitas, nor his familiarity to voters (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden crush him in those regards). Nor is it exactly his policies or speeches (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, both rumored presidential aspirants, have cultivated similar CVs). Nor is it that he plays in a band. Nor is it even the Atlantic’s breathless claim last year that he has “the best abs” in politics. (Beneath a photo of the fit governor participating in the Maryland Special Olympics’ annual Polar Bear Plunge, the author gushed, “What are they putting in the water in Maryland?”) Instead, what makes O’Malley unique as a politician is precisely the skill that was on display in that windowless conference room in downtown Annapolis: he is arguably the best manager working in government today.
That may not seem like a very flashy title—at first blush, “Best Manager” sounds more like a booby prize than a claim a politician might ride to the White House. But in an era where the very idea of government is under assault, a politician’s capacity to deliver on his or her promises, to actually make the bureaucracy work, is an underappreciated skill.
Of course, it was a conservative president who most recently demonstrated his woeful lack of such expertise (see George W. Bush, administration of), but it is the liberal and progressive bloc that stakes its identity on a belief in government, and therefore has a higher stake in getting government management right.
In 2012 Barack Obama cobbled together a motley majority, unified by a shared belief that the federal government can and should play a larger role in solving the country’s common problems. The best way to ensure that voting bloc’s enthusiasm for the Democrats lasts—and the best hope to reduce some of the antigovernment anger on the other side—is for government to deliver results. That means not only passing big legislation, but also making sure that the programs that result, and the rest of the government’s far-flung endeavors, actually work. It means eliminating waste. It means funneling increasingly scarce resources where they can make the most difference. It means making sure that health care access grows while costs stay reasonable; that when hurricanes hit, disaster relief arrives quickly; that big banks don’t implode; that oil rigs don’t explode; that the murder rate goes down and that student test scores go up. What we need in the next president, in other words, is not just creative policy-making and politicking, but a willingness to drive the bureaucracy to perform. He or she must have a passion for managing the government itself.
It’s a tough order to fill. Considering the growing complexity and size of both the federal government and the challenges it has been asked to address, many would characterize it as Sisyphean. But fortunately, over the last couple of decades, through trial and error, new systems of goal setting, data gathering, and accountability have been developed in the public sector that attempt to give elected officials some of the same tools corporate leaders use to demand bottom-line results from their organizations. These new accountability systems are hardly panaceas; in fact, they have disappointed more often than they have succeeded. But it just so happens that the politician who is most broadly recognized to have made them work the best is none other than Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
O’Malley comes by his faith in politics and government honestly. His parents, Barbara and Thomas O’Malley, raised their six children in the shadow of two formidable ideologies: the Catholic Church and the gospel of the Democratic Party.
Both archetypal members of the Greatest Generation, Barbara and Thomas met in the early ’50s at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C. Barbara, the product of sturdy, German Democrats from Fort Wayne, Indiana, joined the Civil Air Patrol and got her pilot’s license at sixteen, then volunteered for a local congressman’s campaign. When he won, she followed him to D.C.—a natural fit for a young woman who’d grown up collecting campaign buttons at Democratic rallies. Thomas, to whom O’Malley owes his Irish complexion, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, flew thirty-three missions over Japan in a bombardier, and returned home in time for the GI Bill to put him through college and Georgetown Law. He later became an assistant U.S. attorney at the Justice Department. He passed away in 2006.
Both Barbara and Thomas were driven by a deep belief in the power of government to do good. On the walls of the O’Malley family home in Rockville, Maryland, there were photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and dinner table discussions were often about upcoming local and national campaigns. On Martin O’Malley’s second birthday, in 1965, his parents got him a cake that read “Martin for President 2004.” It was a joke, of course, but the message was genuine. “There was always a belief that politics is an honorable profession,” O’Malley said of his childhood.
O’Malley’s devoutly Catholic upbringing, as well as his educations at the Jesuit-run Gonzaga College High School and Catholic University, was also infused with an overarching sense of public, and particularly political, service. It’s impossible, after all, to walk to or from Gonzaga, where O’Malley was in the student council, without being physically aware of the great force of American government. Just step outside, and there it is, the Capitol Dome, looming like a movie set. If O’Malley were to become president of the United States one day, he’d be the first in history to have been born and raised in the D.C. area, with the exception of George Washington himself.
Student council aside, O’Malley’s first foray into politics was as an undergraduate, when he took a semester off from school to work for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. He eventually worked his way up the organization, leading the effort in five states. “I felt like I’d gotten ten years older, but when I came back, I was still in college,” he says of the experience. A couple years later, as a law student at the University of Maryland, O’Malley threw himself into another race: then Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 bid for the U.S. Senate. It was over the course of that campaign that O’Malley met the woman who would later be his wife. Catherine (Katie) Curran, a fellow law student, was working on her father J. Joseph Curran Jr.’s successful bid for state attorney general. O’Malley and Curran were married in 1990 and now have two daughters, Grace and Tara, and two sons, Jack and William. For the last twelve years, Curran O’Malley has served as an associate judge on the District Court of Maryland.
After Mikulski joined the Senate in 1987, O’Malley went to work in her office as a legislative fellow, then finished up law school and passed the bar. Around the same time, Barbara O’Malley, who had spent the past thirty-three years at home raising kids, landed a job in Mikulski’s office too. Twenty-six years later, she’s still at it, answering phones for the senator.
O’Malley himself didn’t linger long in Mikulski’s office, however. After a stint with the state attorney for the city of Baltimore, O’Malley again threw himself into a race—this time, as the candidate. In 1990, he challenged incumbent Maryland State Senator John A. Pica for his seat, launching a dogged grassroots campaign and losing by a crushingly slim margin: just forty-four votes. A year later, at twenty-eight years old, he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council, a post he would hold for the next nine years.
It’s not for nothing that O’Malley’s political coming of age happened during one of the bloodier periods in Baltimore history. For most of the ’90s, “Bodymore, Murdaland” had a murder rate nine times the national average, clocking in at roughly one body every thirty-six hours for a decade straight. Baltimore was, perhaps unsurprisingly, also hemorrhaging its population at the same time, losing nearly 85,000 residents to the suburbs and neighboring states in the ’90s alone.
It was during this period that O’Malley, like a lot of elected officials and policy wonks around the country, desperate for a solution for the inner-city war zones, became fascinated with new crime-fighting techniques. At the top of the list was the New York Police Department’s innovative new experiment, CompStat. Led by NYPD Chief William Bratton and his deputy, Jack Maple, the idea was twofold. First, you’d collect data on all the crime that was happening in the city, map it, and then deploy police officers directly to those trouble spots. (In Maple’s shorthand, you’d “put cops on the dots.”) Second, and more fundamentally, you’d hold precinct commanders accountable by making them report the weekly crime data from their precincts, and then attend regular group meetings, where they’d be cross-examined on them: Why are these numbers going up? What can you do about it? Between 1993 and 1998, New York’s homicide rate dropped by 67 percent.
In the mid-’90s, O’Malley and a small team of city officials traveled up to New York with notepads and cameras to observe a CompStat meeting, and by the time O’Malley returned home, he was “a true believer,” to borrow his own words. He spent the last few years of his time on the city council trying to get then Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier to implement the program in Baltimore, too. (When Frazier resisted the young councilman’s entreaties, O’Malley accused him of shirking his duties, sparking a public feud that lasted for years.) O’Malley’s total belief in the CompStat model would define his political career.
In 1999, O’Malley stood at an intersection in Northwest Baltimore, a known drug-selling corner, and announced his intention to run for Baltimore city mayor. His platform? A single, resounding, and highly unlikely promise: to reduce the city’s crime rate by 50 percent. In a city riven by racial politics, the cards were stacked against the young, white councilman, but in August, in the nick of time, he got lucky. Former State General Assembly Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, who is black, endorsed him, and in September, O’Malley walked away with the Democratic primary—the equivalent, in Baltimore, of victory. (Twelve years later, O’Malley would return the favor, endorsing Rawlings’s daughter, the current mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.) O’Malley took the general election in a landslide.
Two days after election night, months before he’d even taken the oath of office, O’Malley recruited Jack Maple, the guru of CompStat, and his business partner, John Linder. Their task? Bring CompStat to Baltimore, stat. Almost immediately, the duo launched a comprehensive review of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and in early 2000 they delivered eighty-seven suggestions of reform to both O’Malley and his brand-new police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel. That’s when the trouble began.
In March, Daniel rejected half of Maple and Linder’s suggestions out of hand and, after a series of closed-door meetings, unexpectedly quit. The city was rocked. Daniel, who was a well-respected, longtime member of the BPD, and black, had seemed like a good bet, and here he was leaving after just
fifty-seven days on the job. What was this new mayor up to? To make matters worse, O’Malley replaced Daniel with a former NYPD official and old CompStat hand, Edward T. Norris, who is white. In the mostly black city, hackles went up. CompStat’s model of “zero tolerance” policing had by that point already been associated with civil rights abuses and higher police brutality rates. (During the election, one of O’Malley’s opponents had circulated postcards with an image of the Rodney King beating and the words “Are you ready for zero tolerance?” On the back was a photo of O’Malley.) Meanwhile, Maple and Linder—“O’Malley’s New York consultants,” as they were invariably described by the media—and their $2,000-a-day consulting fee, were staying on.
The Baltimore Sun, betting against the young mayor, launched a new feature. Every day, it would run a chalk outline of a dead person, the kind you see at a crime scene, next to two figures: the number of homicides that had occurred the previous year on this date and the number of homicides that had occurred so far this year. It seemed to be intended to throw down the gauntlet: So you say you’ll reduce crime by 50 percent? We’d like to see you try.
In March, O’Malley, having played all his cards with an ambitious campaign promise and a rocky start, redoubled his effort. He and Norris—a fast-talking, leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-driving, ’70s-era police movie kind of guy—began to meet nearly every day and often several times a day. Officials who were around at the time remember their relationship as a marriage. “They saw more of each other than anyone else,” one former staffer told me. Norris, who had been in charge of coordinating the NYPD’s CompStat meetings, began to implement an almost identical program at the BPD, while O’Malley cleared the path politically, throwing the weight of his office behind the new program. They brought in computers to map where crime was happening; retrained precinct commanders to deploy the 3,100-member force accordingly; began collecting and analyzing crime data for the whole city on a biweekly basis; and held regular meetings where all the leaders in the police force would gather and discuss the trends.
Meanwhile, O’Malley helped to create a special task force of seventy-five police officers to eliminate a backlog of unserved arrest warrants—a job that had, under the previous administration, fallen to just four overwhelmed souls. The move was intended to zero in on what Norris called “a small core of criminals,” and in 2000 alone it helped police officers arrest, interrogate, and charge more than 250 suspects who had already been implicated in recent homicides and nonfatal shootings. Partly as a result, the rate of solved cases began to climb. In 1999, the police had solved 54 percent of homicides; by the end of 2000, they had solved 80 percent.
O’Malley and Norris’s efforts were also buttressed by an infusion of new recruits, courtesy of then President Bill Clinton’s COPS Program, which was launched in 1994 to help support local community policing efforts. Over the course of nearly a decade, Baltimore was awarded a total of $58 million and was able to hire nearly 900 police officers.
Despite incremental progress, it was slow going at first, and in the spring and early summer, the crime rate even appeared to be climbing. But by the fall, at last, it began to tick downward. By the following January—one year into O’Malley’s first term—the number of homicides per year had dropped below 300 for the first time in a decade. In 1999, there were 305 murders; by 2000, there were 262. Two years later, there were 253. While the homicide rate from there on out climbed slightly and then remained stubbornly high throughout the rest of O’Malley’s term as mayor, the broad downward trend in crime as a whole continued. By 2005, robberies and aggravated assaults were down by a third, and the overall crime rate in Baltimore had dropped by at least 24 percent.
Even before CompStat had gotten off the ground, back in early 2000, O’Malley was eager to expand the concept to other realms. The idea of closely monitoring data and tracking weekly and biweekly progress toward explicit goals appealed to him. It was a way to break down daunting problems into bite-sized pieces, to move, incrementally, in the right direction. It must have felt, in some ways, like a game. In June 2000, just six months after becoming mayor, O’Malley and his team launched a new city-wide program.
CitiStat, as it was called, would be just like CompStat, O’Malley announced, but instead of applying only to the police force, it would apply to every agency in the city. Just as the police commanders had been asked to gather data, set measurable goals, and convene at biweekly performance reviews, so would the agency heads. If CompStat was built on Maple’s premise that the police force should “put cops on the dots,” CitiStat was built on a similar, if less catchy idea—that agencies should deploy their limited resources to the areas that would pack the most punch.
Among those who work in the small world of government performance—a field that, for a variety of reasons, tends to move at glacial speed—CitiStat was seen as a potential game changer. While the CompStat model had been making waves in the criminal justice circuit since the early ’90s and a handful of non-police organizations, like New York City’s Parks Department, had begun to apply the concept on an agency-wide scale, no one had ever tried it with an entire city. If this worked, they thought, it could really change the way we do things, says Robert Behn, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who studies government performance. “All eyes were on Baltimore,” he says.
When CitiStat launched in June 2000, Baltimore City Hall was a mess. If a citizen requested a basic service, like having a downed tree removed or a pothole filled, it would often take multiple calls to reach an operator and then days, or sometimes weeks, to see a response. City officials often showed up late, or drunk, or not at all, and in many instances they seemed to lack the basic information necessary to do their job. One day, O’Malley asked an agency head how many cars and trucks the city had at its disposal. He was given an answer that turned out to be about 2,000 vehicles off the mark.
Where to begin? “The first thing we did was throw all the data we had about the city into charts and maps and graphs to see what was going on,” says Matt Gallagher, who was hired in 2000 to coordinate the brand-new CitiStat program, along with O’Malley’s deputy mayor and childhood friend, Michael Enright. (Gallagher is now the governor’s chief of staff.) Once they had the data in one place, the men “sat down with the numbers” and discovered that rates of absenteeism, overtime, and workers’ compensation claims were staggeringly high. Using off-the-shelf software—mostly Excel spreadsheets—they figured out which departments were filing the most overtime, which individuals were responsible for most of the absenteeism, and how long, on average, it was taking employees to get back to work after they had been injured. Then they began meeting with the agencies to figure out what was going on.
What they discovered was an extraordinary amount of waste, redundancy, and poor management. Some of it was easily fixable. Simply redrawing the Animal Control employees’ daily routes, for example, saved that team more than 10 percent in overtime. But other problems were harder to suss out. For example, at one of the early CitiStat meetings with the Department of Public Works, Gallagher and Enright asked the new head of the department why he wasn’t firing employees who were chronically absent without reason. After a while, he reluctantly admitted that it was because as soon as an employee was fired, the budget department would eliminate that position in the name of salary savings. For him, he said, it was better to have an unreliable employee than no employee at all. That discovery was, as such things go, a eureka moment. O’Malley’s team subsequently met with the budget office, changed their policies, and then went back to the agency heads, empowering them to make changes of their own.
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.”
When attacking CompStat and CitiStat, however, O’Malley’s critics were often even more damning, objecting to what they saw as the twin dangers not only of those programs but of data-driven systems of performance in general. The first is that an administration can consciously manipulate the stats in order to make its performance look better than it is. The second is that the measures themselves can incentivize the bureaucracy to play games with the numbers in ways that management neither anticipates nor notices—to the detriment of citizens. For example, in surveys conducted by criminologists in 2010 and 2012, retired NYPD officers reported that their fellow officers would cite a lower value for stolen goods in order to reduce the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.
As mayor, and since leaving the mayor’s office, O’Malley has stood accused of both—by political opponents, civil rights groups, labor advocates, and by another, more slippery force: Hollywood. In one episode of David Simon’s HBO series, The Wire, various agencies of a fictional Baltimore, scrambling to make it seem like their numbers had improved before a weekly “Comstat” meeting, resort to messing with the numbers. “Juking the stats,” one character says knowingly. “Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.” In 2002, O’Malley had been there, too, but in real life. During an internal audit, the BPD found that officers had been under-counting the number of rapes that had occurred in the city. The official total was 178, when it should have been 211. While the problem was, in fairness, discovered by the O’Malley administration itself, the revelation became a useful political bludgeon for O’Malley’s opponents, who later would call loudly for more external audits, casting shadows of doubt on O’Malley’s progress.
Civil rights advocates, for their part, have been less concerned with allegations that O’Malley was juking the stats and more concerned that his data-driven programs were creating damaging incentives for police officers to make their numbers look good. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought a lawsuit against Maryland on the grounds that O’Malley’s policies as mayor had caused the number of illegal arrests and instances of police harassment of law-abiding citizens to skyrocket during his tenure. Indeed, according to city records, in 2005, police made 108,000 arrests—that’s one for every six people in the city at the time.
In 2010, the state settled the cases out of court. The BPD has since rejected “zero-tolerance” policies, established new protocols for minor infractions, and agreed to allow independent observers to keep an eye on police actions. (In 2012, police made fewer than 53,000 arrests.) O’Malley has said that he does not see the ACLU/NAACP lawsuit, or the state’s decision to settle it, as a rebuke of CompStat, which, he says, never encouraged officers to be more aggressive in their arrests.
Of course, the issue, and O’Malley’s response to it, reflects a larger debate playing out in headlines across the nation today. In April, yet another instance of teachers cheating in order to raise their schools’ test scores came to light, drawing fire from critics not only of policies like No Child Left Behind, but of data-driven systems in general, which, they say, often encourage appalling behavior. Proponents of such systems, and O’Malley himself, argue that while dangers like cheating and juking stats are real, they can be mitigated, and the value of using data-driven techniques outweighs those costs. (After all, when companies like WorldCom and Enron juked their internal accounting numbers, we didn’t respond by eliminating accounting standards; we tightened them up with Sarbanes-Oxley.) Harry Hatry, a fellow at the Urban Institute long involved in data-driven governance efforts, says the problem of misaligned incentives “is real—it’s a major problem, and we don’t do enough about it.” But he suggested the solution is to collect more data, in the form of surveys, for example—not to scrap the metrics altogether.
That ongoing debate has characterized much of O’Malley’s recent career. On the campaign trail in 2006, for example, O’Malley’s Democratic rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, as well as the incumbent governor, Bob Ehrlich, who is Republican, tussled with O’Malley again over what they called his “fuzzy math.” In his stump speeches, O’Malley claimed that violent crime had dropped by 37 percent during his time as mayor, giving Baltimore the second-fastest crime rate reduction in the country. His opponents, however, argued that crime had dropped by 24 percent, giving Baltimore only the sixth-fastest crime reduction rate in the country.
Both were right—depending on what baseline you looked at. In 1999, an audit by Linder & Associates found that the BPD had been mis-categorizing assaults, thereby artificially reducing the violent crime rate. If you re-categorized those assaults, the overall instances of violent crime would appear to spike dramatically. When O’Malley became mayor in 2000, he did just that. As a result, both the crime rate and the percentage by which he was able to cut crime appeared substantially higher. If you used the new baseline, his numbers were right; if you used the old baseline, his opponents’ numbers were. While the controversy cast a pallor on the election, it didn’t change its course. In June 2006, Duncan dropped out of the race, leaving O’Malley to win the Democratic primary and sweep into the governor’s mansion.
Less than a month after taking the oath of office in January 2007, O’Malley held a press conference. During the half-hour presentation, in which the new governor “alternately sounded like a policy wonk and deadpan comic,” the Washington Post reported, O’Malley laid out his plan to implement CitiStat at the state level. The predictably named StateStat would span all state agencies, he said, and, like CitiStat, include issue-specific programs to focus on cross-agency problems. Gallagher, who had helped launch CitiStat, would launch StateStat, too. With Maryland facing more than a billion-dollar projected budget shortfall the following year and state agencies unaccustomed to stringent oversight, O’Malley predicted at the press conference that there would be “growing pains,” he said. That was, it turned out, a major understatement.
Ten months later, Maryland was slammed, along with the rest of the country, by the recession (which O’Malley invariably and loyally refers to as “the Bush Recession”). With unemployment and foreclosures skyrocketing, and businesses shuttering their doors left and right, critics questioned whether that was the time to roll out a fancy new managerial tool at the state level. O’Malley and his team, however, were committed to it. By mapping government services with data, they argued, they could be more efficient with the increasingly strapped resources they had.
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.
Since 2007, StateStat, like CitiStat, has also become a model for analysts and researchers who study government performance, as well as practitioners of the confused art. In recent years, O’Malley’s team in Annapolis, like his team in Baltimore, has become an attraction for visitors, who come to see how StateStat works. Since 2007, O’Malley has hosted governors from more than a dozen other states and leaders from all over the world, from Peru to Pakistan, from China to Northern Ireland. In 2008, the Obama administration turned to O’Malley’s programs as inspiration for its model of how to manage the federal bureaucracy. And in 2009, Governing magazine put O’Malley on the cover of its issue highlighting the country’s best public servants. He was the only governor in the spread. In the last thirteen years, O’Malley’s general data-driven managerial style has even earned its own name among those who study such things: PerformanceStat. Behn, the Harvard lecturer, is writing a whole book about it.
While O’Malley may have considerable bragging rights from his time as mayor and governor, if he runs for president, he’ll still have some serious explaining to do. For one, his passage of laws banning the death penalty, regulating gun purchases, and approving an offshore wind farm will certainly endear him to Democratic primary voters, but there’s not a lot in his record so far that will warm the hearts of more conservative, but persuadable, voters in states like Ohio, Virginia, and Nevada, which he very well might need in a general election. Same goes for his recent move to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades. While it’s no doubt a boon for Maryland’s infrastructure, it’s generally a wildly unpopular policy among average voters of any stripe. David Ferguson, the chairman of the Maryland Republicans, recently wrote in a media brief that O’Malley, “determined to become President of the United States,” is pursuing a “radical social agenda,” “ ‘checking the boxes’ for the most extreme and liberal Democratic Party primary voters.” O’Malley has not crossed any of his own liberal base groups, which might signal ideological independence the way, say, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has occasionally run afoul of conservatives. Nor has he exactly styled himself as a great unifier—for years he has stoked a trans-Potomac feud with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is Republican.
But perhaps O’Malley’s lefty, and loyally Democratic, credentials could also be an asset—particularly if he’s aiming for the penultimate spot on the ticket. His ironclad message discipline, combined with his roles as cheerful fund-raiser, proxy campaigner, and loyal attack dog during the election last year, could be seen by many as an impressive tryout for vice president. And should Hillary Clinton run, surely her people will not have forgotten that, during the heated 2008 primary, O’Malley was the Maryland state chair of Hillary’s campaign from 2007 to 2008.
More importantly, in recent White Houses, vice presidents have often taken on key managerial roles in the government. That proved disastrous in the case of Dick Cheney, but Al Gore, who was responsible for driving the largely successful Reinventing Government program in the ’90s, did a much better job. Joe Biden, who spearheaded the project tracking stimulus spending, which has been successful in minimizing fraud, also did well. O’Malley, given his history, would be a natural fit for that role—a fact he’s probably aware of. In April, chafing at accusations that he was too far left, he began referring to himself as a “performance-driven progressive,” and describing his management style in an interview with Bloomberg as a “fundamentally different way of governing.”
Should he get that far, O’Malley could take on the traditional VP role at a time when the federal government is uniquely primed for it. In 2010, the Obama administration passed the GPRA Modernization Act, which re-ups and codifies the Clinton-era performance management program and includes some new requirements, some of which were directly inspired by CitiStat and StateStat, including regularly scheduled performance reviews. (See “A Short History of Data-Driven Government.”)
Of course, skillfully managing the federal government is a job for neither the cynic nor the faint of heart. It’s an enormously complex task, to say the least, and no president or vice president in recent memory—none perhaps since Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has tackled it with any holistic success. But when I asked O’Malley if he thought it was even possible—is StateStat even scalable to the federal level? FedStat, anyone?—he considered it for a minute, admitted the enormous difficulties of the job, and said yes. Then, putting his feet up on the desk in front of him, he transitioned from O’Malley-the-wonky-manager to O’Malley-the-guy-who-actually-likes-all-that-politician-stuff.
“You know,” he said, “I think the truth is we need FedStat. At a time when people are so very cynical about what our public institutions are capable of delivering, the power of openness and transparency and the willingness of leaders to make themselves vulnerable by declaring goals could well restore that essential trust that we need in order to bring forth a new era of progress.” He stopped, nodding at the cadence of his own thoughts.
Then, like a hundred reporters before me, I broached the subject of 2016. If he were to go to Washington, D.C., I asked, would he be the one to implement “FedStat”? His face broke into a broad grin.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to govern.”
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