Have you ever wondered if government will be able to achieve the same gains in efficiency and productivity that the private sector has experienced in the past two decades? If you think government is incapable of this kind of remarkable change, consider the record of Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley. Sadly, too many citizens have grown accustomed to accepting low expectations for their elected leaders, mainly hoping officials at least do more good than harm by the end of their term. During his time in office, Martin O’Malley has upended the entire framework by which governments and citizens interact, setting big goals for his organization, and publicly measuring their progress, win or lose. In the process, Governor O’Malley is leaving behind something far more valuable than the sum of his achievements; he has created a model through which governments may one day be able to recapture public trust and rekindle aspirations.
Governor O’Malley’s leadership style is on par with America’s most innovative leaders. He abhors the hierarchies long favored by governments and old bureaucratic businesses, echelons he sees as the primary obstacles to unleashing a true spirit of innovation within an organization. He favors a lean enterprise, constantly redeploying resources in an effort to move the needle on the sixteen strategic goals he identified as being critical to adding real value in the lives of Marylanders. To get there, he leveraged the power of StateStat, a program based on CitiStat. CitiStat is the award-winning approach to performance management he first developed as Mayor of Baltimore, designed to help citizens reclaim their city from the grips of drugs, addiction, and abandonment. New data comes in every day; lieutenants are routinely held accountable for their results and make adjustments to align resources to the most pressing problems of state.
Just three years ago, Governor O’Malley received a daily briefing via a two-inch thick binder, documenting the day’s data, findings, and briefings on novel approaches to public problems. Today, when you see him in public, he is likely absorbed in his iPad, gears turning, always scouring the details of the latest reports, sending dozens of messages an hour, from probing follow-up questions to guidance and leadership direction, and offering kudos to staff at all levels when data proves a hypothesis and progress is made. It is, as Governor O’Malley is known to say, “a graph moving in the right direction.”
Stat Catches On
The effects of Governor O’Malley’s leadership have been felt far and wide. Cities, states, and government bodies around the world have adopted his Stat model of performance. Nowhere is this effect more evident than his home region: the Mid-Atlantic. Baltimore’s famed CitiStat program, winner of Harvard’s prestigious Innovations in Government Award, continues to be a model for achieving performance in an urban setting. StateStat and its sister spin-off organizations, launched to tackle huge, cross-cutting undertakings such as restoring the Chesapeake Bay to health (BayStat) or eliminating childhood hunger in Maryland’s borders (HungerStat), have flourished in Maryland and provide a model that has been adapted in organizational bodies including many federal agencies and cities and counties from Boston to Los Angeles. Today, the nation’s most innovative county governments, including Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, have adapted the stat performance model to their own operations. In doing so, they join a long and growing list of leadership that is not just promising results, but making data-driven decisions, collaborating and sharing with citizens, and challenging old assumptions about effective management of government organizations.
“One of the biggest pitfalls is thinking that measurement is a substitute for accountability—it’s not. The two go hand-in-hand, and you can’t be successful with only one.”
Governor O’Malley recently took some time to tell us more about the evolution of his approach to leadership.
Q: What was the impetus to your data-driven leadership style?
We adopted the principles of a guy named Jack Maple, who helped the NYPD significantly reduce crime in the late 1990s through a program called CompStat. Jack believed that everything could be measured, and that what gets measured gets done. Data-driven leadership works because it requires you to set clear, measurable goals.
In Maryland we hold our leaders accountable for meeting those goals. That is, we don’t just measure performance, we meet monthly with agency leaders to assess our progress, to see where we can do better, and if goals aren’t being met, to ask why and develop strategies for how we can turn the trends around.
Q: How do you convince your peers that setting and measuring goals publicly isn’t scary, but effective?
I think they’re persuaded by results. In Baltimore, with the hard work of many dedicated law enforcement professionals, we achieved the largest reduction of violent crime in any major city in the U.S. in the ten-year period after I was first elected. And in Maryland we’ve driven down statewide violent crime by over 26 percentto the lowest levels in nearly four decades. Overtime savings in Baltimore was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Chesapeake Bay is getting healthier each year, rather than sicker. These achievements don’t happen by accident—they happen because of smarter choices, intentional leadership, and because we are relentless about measuring performance and holding people accountable.
“The reduction of violent crime in Baltimore represents a football stadium full of people who weren’t victims.”
Q: How did you go about setting your 16 strategic goals?
We worked with leaders and stakeholders to pick goals that represented what was important to the citizens of Maryland. The goals are focused around four clusters: opportunity, public safety, sustainability, and health. Each of the goals represents big-picture challenges that require a complex chain of delivery in order to achieve progress. Choosing big, audacious goals serves to coordinate people around the interconnected actions that are required for success.
Q: What’s the most common misperception of data-driven leadership?
That it’s all about numbers, charts, and graphs. Each of these numbers represent individual lives that have been impacted by their government working better—or in many cases, lives that have been saved. The reduction of violent crime in Baltimore represents a football stadium full of people who weren’t victims. The reduction in infant mortality is even more tangible—it’s 159 fewer infant deaths in 2012 compared to just four years earlier.
Q: What are some of the greatest pitfalls leaders face in performance measurement?
One of the biggest pitfalls is thinking that measurement is a substitute for accountability—it’s not. The two go hand-in-hand, and you can’t be successful with only one.
Our biggest challenge was changing the culture of the bureaucracy and instituting a focus on problem-solving, innovative thinking, data-driven decision-making, transparency, and accountability. We used to hear the same old time-worn excuses we hear all the time: “we’re already doing that,” “we tried that and it didn’t work,” “we would do that except you cut our budget last year,” and on and on. We had to instill a new approach that was entrepreneurial, collaborative, results-driven, and relentless.
Q: What happens when you achieve a goal?
The team gets the ultimate reward—a more ambitious goal.
Q: Are you ever concerned that falling short of a goal could lead the media or citizens to portray your organization as ineffective?
People warned me not to set ambitious, transparent, measurable goals. They said “what will happen if you don’t make it?” To which I replied, “what if we do?” And they said “but what if you don’t?” And I said…“what if we do?” And so we did. We understood the risks associated with making ourselves vulnerable. But we also firmly believe that in order to maximize progress, there have to be clear goals with short time horizons, you have to measure progress in real-time, and there has to be accountability via transparency.
Q: Have you ever dealt with organizations that are “gaming the data”?
From day one we built in a robust practice of auditing our data to ensure that people weren’t gaming the system. Some of that is systematic, like in the police department, where every report gets reviewed by a special unit to make sure crimes are being classified correctly. Some of it is done with shoe-leather from the StateStat team, who conduct unscheduled site inspections and regularly audit the data they are receiving from the agencies.
Our final level of accountability is the public. We post everything—and I mean everything—online. Detailed meeting summaries, charts, maps, raw data—anything used in the meeting is posted on the StateStat website. And you can log on right now to goals.maryland.gov and see all of the progress we’re making towards each of the 16 strategic goals.
Q: What’s the future of data-driven government?
We’ve already progressed from what I call Stat “1.0”—data-driven decision making and accountability, mostly internal and siloed—into Stat “2.0,” which is less siloed, more collaborative, and more open. Our focus on big-picture strategic goals, which involved interaction across different government agencies, and our enhanced use of open data, have been the key features of “2.0.”
I think the next iteration—“3.0,” if you will—will take collaboration and openness to the next level. We’ll do a much better job of leveraging citizen engagement through social media, online polling, and events like “hackathons.” We’ll build common platforms that leverage citizen expertise and initiative towards more efficient, effective government, and more importantly, toward solving some of the public challenges we face.
Q: What resources do you recommend for new leaders that are thinking about creating a performance management program?
Setting up a performance management program doesn’t require expensive, new software or a team of IT consultants. We run StateStat on Excel. Anyone can walk into our office and start using it and any citizen can download our templates and start interacting with our data.
The best resource is going to visit other places who are doing performance management successfully. Rarely a week went by that we didn’t have visitors to CitiStat, or to StateStat, and there are other places that do this really well, too.
I’m also a reader, and still go back to Jack Maple’s book “Crime Fighter”; Bill Bratton’s book “Collaborate or Perish!”; and the writings of Sir Michael Barber, who headed the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit for Tony Blair.