Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) believes he has discovered a “new way of governing” that could revolutionise Washington.
Throughout his political career, O’Malley has been obsessed with data. Now, he appears to be mulling whether to mount a potential primary challenger to 2016 front-runner Hillary Clinton. If he does run, it seems his devotion to performance metrics could become a major part of his platform.
“It is not like the old way that was very often hierarchical, and bureaucratic, ideological — orders from on high that eventually make it to the bottom of the pyramid,” O’Malley recently told Business Insider in his Annapolis office, which is adorned with historic paintings and war memorabilia. “It’s relentlessly interactive. It is performance-measured.”
Minutes before the interview, O’Malley completed one of his regular “StateStat” meetings where his data-centric methods were on full display.
During the meeting, the governor sat at the center of a table encircled by his top aides and uniformed state police troopers wielding tablets and laptops. Before a PowerPoint presentation began, two screen projectors displayed the motto: “A deadline is the difference between a dream and a goal.”
Violent crime was the first item on the agenda. A map of Maryland showed a clear drop across various counties. However, there was one exception in the Western corner of the state: Garrett County, population roughly 30,000. The officers and O’Malley’s team debated what caused the spike.
“I know it’s a drop in the bucket,” one aide admitted while pressing for more details.
They moved on to other crime statistics. Each PowerPoint slide had either a colourful map or chart. Maryland’s governor was full of questions.
“Do we fund that?” he asked about domestic abuse coordinators at hospitals. “Have the frontline people seen that graph?”
O’Malley’s queries continued throughout the meeting.
“Have you ever sat them down as a group and asked what they could be doing better?”
“Where are we on traffic fatalities? It’s down, but what’s the number?”
“What do the numbers say? This is our best graph?”
Afterwards, O’Malley told Business Insider visualising data is a key component of his management style.
“I think I’ve always had a knack for the spatial and for understanding things spatially — how things are connected,” he explained. “I think it’s really illuminating and clarifying when you can actually chart, graph, and map problems, and opportunities, and interventions, and actions.”
‘Nothing Short of Confrontational’
O’Malley’s interest in data-centric governing was inspired by a program associated with an unlikely role model for a progressive Democrat — former New York City mayor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.
During Giuliani’s administration in the mid-1990s, the mayor and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton revolutionised the city’s crime-fighting policy with a program known as CompStat that has been described as both a tool and a management philosophy. Short for “compare stats,” CompStat isn’t an especially complicated concept. Its central tenets are that police departments should track the specifics of crime data and complaints, deploy resources to troubled locations, and hold local commanders accountable for the results.
Bratton credited the program for helping him achieve record-breaking drops in crime. According to Newsday, hundreds of police agencies around the country now use a CompStat-like system.
“CompStat was one of the most revolutionary developments in policing in the last century,” Vincent Henry, a former NYPD officer who worked with Bratton, told the paper. “It was revolutionary, it changed the way people do business, changed the way police think about crime.”
O’Malley, who was then a Baltimore city councilman, made a surprising bid for mayor in 1999 and reportedly campaigned on halving Baltimore’s crippling crime rate. This would be no small feat: Constant homicides had painfully earned the city nicknames like “Bodymore, Murdaland” and “Bulletmore, Murderland.” O’Malley has said Baltimore was then “the most violent and addicted big city in America.”
As a white politician facing a majority-black electorate, it initially seemed the odds were against him. (He was an inspiration for the Tommy Carcetti character in “The Wire” but is said to still hate the show with a “taut fury.”) In an election focused on crime, O’Malley nevertheless surged, got the support of important black leaders, and easily won his primary.
According to the Baltimore Sun, O’Malley never reached his goal of cutting the city’s homicide rate from more than 300 to 175 annually. However, “he drove the killings down to 253 in 2003, and for the next six years Baltimore experienced the sharpest reduction in violent crime of any city in the country.”
But O’Malley wasn’t content to just apply the data-centered approach to crime, as Matt Gallagher, his former chief of staff, recalled.
“As things began to work on the policing side because of CompStat, then-Mayor O’Malley began to ask us questions. Like, ‘Boy, I wish I had something like CompStat for the rest of the city,” Gallagher told Business Insider.
O’Malley ended up doing exactly that. Gallagher, who became director of the new “CitiStat” program, said O’Malley started with the department of public works but soon monitored everything from overtime hours to the time it took to fill potholes after a complaint.
Of course, O’Malley’s administration didn’t solely rely on statistics and charts. CitiStat also involved on-the-ground assessments of local agencies — and there were some surprises along the way.
“After we studied potholes for a while, we learned that … only one in 10 potholes was being filled as the result of a complaint. We came out and gave the ’48-hour pothole guarantee,'” Gallagher said. “People were really happy. We kind of took that same approach and applied it to things like graffiti and abandoned vehicle removal.”
Gallagher said the program sometimes led O’Malley’s staff to uncover waste and abuse in unexpected places.
“Site visits used to be a really big part of what we did — try and get out in the field and see what is going on. I remember in City Hall we went to a garage one day where vehicles were being worked on. We found a team of people who were grilling food, having a barbecue in the middle of the workday,” he recalled. “Some were fired; some were disciplined. The barbecue equipment was moved.”
CitiStat was credited as a massive success and was considered both effective and aggressive. In 2004, Baltimore won an “Innovations in American Government” award from Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovations, which called the city’s program “nothing short of confrontational.”
“In biweekly meetings, the manager of each city agency must stand at a podium and answer questions from a panel led by the mayor or his appointed inquisitor,” the Ash Center said at the time. “CitiStat’s primary innovation is its ability to tailor performance evaluations to each agency: the animal control manager must explain an increase in strays and propose a solution; the housing manager must explain a chart of vacant houses and the plans to resolve this problem; all managers may be asked to explain each hour of their department’s overtime.”
According to Gallagher, O’Malley was eager to apply CitiStat on an even bigger scale. In the 2006 governor’s race, he earned the chance to fulfil this ambition when he rode that year’s Democratic wave and unseated incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R).
“I think most people would say it was his signature management accomplishment as mayor of Baltimore. Fast forward to 2006, when the mayor ran for governor, he pledged that he was going to bring CitiStat to the state,” Gallagher said. “He got inaugurated in January of 2007; two months later you had the first ‘StateStat’ meeting.”
Bob Behn, a Harvard Professor who wrote a book about the CompStat and CitiStat programs, The PerformanceStat Potential, told Business Insider the transition from city to state analytical programs wasn’t simple. Many city services are relatively direct and easily converted into statistics — such as the number of potholes filled, or abandoned houses renovated — while state services involve more relatively complex outcomes.
“The city was filling potholes, right? That’s very operational, easy to count, easy for citizens to see, easy for citizens to complain about. … They had to make the leap to the state where they weren’t doing the same sort of operational thing,” Behn said. “The ability to make that transition was not something that everybody could have done, let’s just put it that way.”
Still, today, StateStat has expanded to cover a plethora of wide-ranging issues with specific policy goals. They include: reducing the nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay through “Baystat,” reducing infant mortality 10% by 2017, and doubling transit ridership by 2020. Touting O’Malley’s analytics, Governing magazine put him on the coverin 2009.
Of course, by presenting specific goals, O’Malley also sets himself up to fail when they aren’t achieved. For example, progress on the transit ridership goal is lagging. The StateStat website has a red downward arrow next to the substance abuse section, noting: “-7.4% Progress towards Accidental or Undetermined Intoxication Death Reduction Goal of 20 per cent in Maryland.”
“There’s lots of political people that would say, ‘Don’t do that, you have an election coming up,'” O’Malley said of the potential for public failure inherent in his program. “The reality is what the reality is: We’re losing too many people to heroin overdoses, but it’s not for lack of being aware of it. It’s not for lack of doing things to combat it.”
He soon added: “It was the rare mayor — man or woman — who would already have a term under their belt that would be willing to embrace this. So, I’ve found newer mayors did this more freely because they did not have to own the past performance and the past numbers.”
‘What Would It Take to Do It on the Federal Level?’
When asked about creating a “stat” program for the federal government, O’Malley recalled a conversation he once had with Jack Maple, the architect of CompStat in New York who worked with him to bring the program to Baltimore.
“I said, ‘Jack, we should do this in a few departments of Baltimore City.’ And Jack said that, ‘You should do it for the entire city.’ I said, ‘Well the city might be too big.’ He says, ‘No. It’s not too big. But because it’s big, that should mean you want to do it throughout the city,’ … It’s even more urgently needed the larger an organisation, because the number of combinations of actions become more multiple and more layered. All the more important that there be a management discipline, a management rhythm — a visible, measurable way to determine where our dollars go,” O’Malley recounted.
It’s difficult to know what exactly is in O’Malley’s head when it comes to his presidential ambitions, but it’s clear he has them. Unlike every other Democrat — including Clinton — O’Malley is attending local, small-ball campaign events and deploying political staff to key presidential primary states’ local races. Some speculate he could be aiming for something more modest, such as the vice presidency or a cabinet position in a Clinton administration.
O’Malley will only say he is “seriously considering” a run for president. In spite of this, O’Malley was willing to offer some not-so-subtle hints that he’s contemplating bringing his data-based approach to the White House.
“What would it take to do it on the federal level? The same thing it takes to do at the mayoral level or the gubernatorial level. And that’s executive commitment,” said O’Malley. “If the executive, the man or woman standing at the center of the circle, isn’t committed to create this new way of governing and this new executive method, it’s not going to happen. The bureaucracies will wait you out. You might have a press conference. You might even give a good speech about it. But if you’re not doing it everyday, in every way, you’re not going to change the culture.”
However, O’Malley’s critics argue his record in Maryland doesn’t actually withstand rigorous analysis
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), who worked under Ehrlich and went on to head the GOP’s national committee, mocked O’Malley’s data-based approach with his own take on the numbers.
“He didn’t turn sh– around. He made it worse. We left him with a $US2 billion surplus in the rainy day fund. There’s now a $US2 billion deficit,” Steele told Business Insider.
Steele scoffed: “So much for analytics.”
O’Malley, who would be the unquestioned underdog against a candidate like Clinton, may have become even more of a presidential long-shot in recent weeks. His handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), was upset on Election Day by Republican businessman Larry Hogan despite the Democratic tilt of the state. Hogan’s campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues like state tax increases — not StateStat. Still, Brown’s defeat could be a sign O’Malley’s statistics-based management style won’t be enough win over voters.
Asked for comment on Brown’s loss, O’Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith pointed to the governor’s decisive 2010 re-election campaign, a rematch against Ehrlich.
“In 2010, Governor O’Malley ran on the results his data-driven approach achieved for the people of Maryland. He bucked the national trend and won by 14 points,” Smith said in a statement. “His data-driven approach resonates most prominently in cities, where dozens of mayors have adopted the CitiStat program then-Mayor O’Malley pioneered in Baltimore. Especially in this time of anxiety, Americans want more results, transparency, and accountability in government, not less.”
O’Malley appears to be similarly framing his data-centric approach for a national audience. In addition to racking up a laundry list of progressive achievements — including same-sex marriage, gun control, and immigration reform laws — O’Malley is offering some soft criticism of the Democratic Party’s loyalty to government programs that may not be cost-effective.
“I think sometimes the one party undercuts its arguments for accountability and fiscal responsibility by its mad drive to dismantle government,” he said, referring to Republicans. “In the same way, I think sometimes our own party undercuts our arguments for effective governance by not be willing to make our actions accountable. … If they don’t work we should stop doing them and find something new that works better.”
Though that sort of tough talk against wasteful government programs is more common among conservatives, O’Malley insisted there’s no conflict between being liberal and being focused on data.
“I don’t find anything contradictory with wanting a government to work more effectively,” O’Malley said.
He paused before explaining himself again in less wonky terms.
“How can I say it in a pithier, more quotable kind of way?” he asked. “I borrowed this idea from Giuliani’s administration in New York. And I really could give a rat’s arse that it was a Republican administration at the time. It was an idea that worked.”
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