Good Data

Timothy B. Clark

By the numbers, government can get better.

One of the best known public sector accountability efforts is Baltimore's CitiStat program. It assembles detailed data about the performance of publicly funded programs and reports to Mayor Sheila Dixon in sessions that include her Cabinet, CitiStat analysts and the (sometimes embarrassed) heads of public works, transportation, housing and other city agencies.

In one example, my son Sam, who works for CitiStat, used a camera to show many more dead streetlights on city arterials than public records previously had admitted. In another, CitiStat analysts used robust data collection and follow-up to allow then-Mayor Martin O'Malley to guarantee that potholes would be fixed within 48 hours of a citizen's request.

CitiStat is cited in "Governing by the Numbers," a recent report by Yale University professor Daniel C. Esty and Reece Rushing of the Center for American Progress. The authors make a convincing case that vigorous data-gathering, accompanied by careful judgment, can improve both policy formulation and program performance. A few federal programs earn the authors' praise. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's program to post online reports on the causes of automobile fatalities has contributed to a steady decline in traffic deaths over three decades. In the past 15 years, the authors report, the Environmental Protection Agency's online Toxics Release Inventory database has driven a 50 percent reduction in releases as industrial facilities "have become more accountable for their pollution."

In general, the federal government gets low marks. The Bush administration has cut many agencies' research budgets, the report notes. Its Performance Assessment Rating Tool is "open to a great deal of subjective interpretation and political manipulation," say Estes and Rushing.

Good data can lead to better decisions and greater accountability. And a reading of this issue suggests that the chiefs we cover are squarely in the business of aggregating data about the activities they oversee, defining problems and identifying best practices for addressing them. The decisions that created the chiefs positions were clearly meant to promote more accountability in government's technology, acquisition, finance, human capital and information security programs.

The chiefs are concerned with what many would consider back-office systems, but these are increasingly essential to the functioning of agencies and their programs. They also are highly intertwined. Technology underlies finance, personnel and acquisition systems. The technology, finance and acquisition chiefs all ask their human capital counterparts for help with dire shortages of capable staff. Acquisition professionals are in the business of creating multisector workforces, with obvious consequences for human capital planning. Financial systems cannot deliver auditable reports without accurate data from acquisition programs.

Working together, all these chiefs can deliver a better-functioning, more accountable government.

Tim Signature
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