Thursday, October 27, 2016

Remember CitiStat?

Martin O'Malley's political currency is on an all time low right now. There is his barely measurable standing in the primaries and then, more damning, the Department of Justice report decrying police practices that track back to his time as Baltimore Mayor and his Commissioner Ed Norris who had to leave office in disgrace.
CitiStat session with O'Malley at the podium

But there is a bright and somewhat geeky star on O'Malley's chest and that is CitiStat, a method of data based governance that he had copied from New York police department's CompStat in 1999 but advanced in Baltimore to a point that O'Malley was even invited by the Mayor of London to show off his magic. CitiStat was one of the rare Baltimore articles that could be exported like Fadley's crab-cakes or Berger Cookies.
The Office of CitiStat is a small performance-based management group responsible for continually improving the quality of services provided to the citizens of Baltimore City. CitiStat evaluates policies and procedures practiced by City departments for delivering all manners of urban services from criminal investigation to pothole repair. Staff analysts examine data and perform investigations in order to identify areas in need of improvement. City agencies are required to participate in a highly particularized presentation format designed to maximize accountability. Agencies must be prepared to answer any question raised by the Mayor or her Cabinet at CitiStat sessions which are held every four weeks.
As a result of its success, the CitiStat model has been adopted by local governments across the U.S. and around the world. (City website)
O'Malley protege and former Secretary of Planning Rich Hall put CitiStat up as a topic in the CPHA series of discussions that will provide a portfolio of agenda items for the incoming Baltimore Mayor. Big Data has taken a popularity hit as well, ever since Snowden had revealed how BIG Big Data really is. Under the Title "CitiStat 2.0" Hall, now Executive Director of CPHA, had invited as a panelist Stat experts of various places: someone who ran StateStat for O'Malley (Matt Power), the one who runs CitiStat now for SRB (Sameer Sidh) and someone who adopted CitiStat for Prince George's County as CountyStat (Ben Birge). Seema Iyer who runs the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicator Alliance at UB rounded the group out as the only non government person.

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For those who wondered why Ms Iyer was added to the panel, she explained that BNIA was conceived at the same time as CitiStat and that the academic data research base was supposed to be the yin for the yang of CitiStat. An eminently plausible idea, and, as Iyer emphasized, City and BNIA,indeed, collaborate on data sets.

Data based governance was and is touted as a tool to create transparency, a rational base for the deployment of resources, and as such an efficiency tool and, maybe most of all, as a tool that forces the siloed departments to collaborate. The panelists agreed that "data based problem discovery" is the biggest benefit of efforts like CitiStat in which data are collected, compared and spread via GIS over geographic spaces.

Under O'Malley CitiStat was a tool to kick butt and hold departments accountable.    He was so enamored with the approach that he cleaned out the mezzanine level at City Hall and installed the CitiStat operations center there, right in the executive area and not in the Benton Building where most departments have their spaces. Department heads had to show up in the mezzanine where O'Malleys CityStat operatives quizzed them at least monthly about progress and performance often under the eyes of the boss, who often acted as the Great Inquisitor himself. The more department directors hated CitiStat, the more O'Malley liked it, and the citizens of Baltimore gave him credit for making government accountable and more effective from the infamous potholes to trash collection and crime.

Under subsequent Mayors and also in PG County "stating" has become much more benign, or "collaborative" as the panelists called it. The efforts went beyond "baseline stating" (how much of this and that did you do?) to process mapping, problem discovery and "OutcomeStat". The latter in response to a frequent objection that someone in the audience stated this way: "I don't care how many potholes you filled, I care in what state the streets are". The questioner asked: "What should be measured? I care about effective production of services and about outcomes."

Turns out, what should be measured is a complicated matter. Matt Powers says "there are a million possible questions that a government can use as potential metrics. By contrast, the private business can reduce everything to one simple question: is it profitable?"

SRB's new initiative: So far just a website banner
Seema Iyer and audience member Izzy Patoka brought up community participation and the question to what extent community is involved in establishing the criteria, the metrics, the oversight and assists in drawing conclusions. Patoka asked about inclusion of external factors. "We got to have shared governance", Iyer exclaimed and mused about how community can bring resources to the table through "capacity building". She suggested community based data collection such as the evaluation of 311 and 911 calls and shared a surprising tidbit of her own analysis: The frequency of 311 calls in a community and the voter turnout are not a direct correlation as one would expect, but inverse proportional. The more 311 calls, the lower the voter turnout in that community. Naturally, there doesn't have to be causation. One can speculate that the cause for the many 311 calls are poor services and that poor services are most frequent in poor neighborhoods where turnout is also often low.

Sam Singh responded that he had, indeed, just recently studied 311 calls and that calls about trash pick-up take the cake as the most frequent topic, confirming a likely cause for calls. If that pick-up would work like it does in the County neighborhoods with private haulers, those calls would likely subside entirely.
Panelists: Seema Iyer, Matt Power, Ben Birge, Sameer Sidh, Rich Hall
(photo: Philipsen)

Data-based governance is still far from reality and some would doubt that it should ever be realized.
But data can bring unexpected insights and open the door for a multi departmental view of the same problem, making it a lot less intractable.

SRB let CityStat languish for quite some time until Sameer Sidh was brought in from CityDOT a year ago. Asked what he would tell the Mayor the day after the election in the famous "elevator speech", he said he would sit in an airplane on the way to his honeymoon at that time. Good for him!

Ben Birge from PG County said he would tell his Executive that CountyStat "is the best myth busting tool in County government". Seema Iyer said she would tell the new Mayor she "wants to see NeighborhoodStat".

Rich Hall will convey those results to the new Mayor.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related more in depth articles about data based planning on my blog Community Architect:
Can there be science in city planning? 
What has architecture to do with quantum physics

Data and Decisions in Government, 2009 article about CitiStat
Business Insider about Big Data Candidate O'Malley