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Data Evangelists Spread the Word on Boosting Government Performance

A recent gathering of state and local officials had the feel of an old time revival.

It was almost like an old-time revival, but with a modern twist, when former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was the keynote “preacher” at a recent event on the use of data, mapping, and analytics as the new way of governing for results. He spoke at an informal, semi-annual gathering of local government chief performance officers, hosted by Marc Erlich, county executive for Montgomery County, Maryland.

The congregation of the faithful was nearly 100 enthusiastic state and local officials from across the region charged with helping their communities improve operations and results by using performance information to make better decisions. 

It was an inspirational gathering. Attendees had an opportunity to hear and meet O’Malley, who helped start the nationwide “PerformanceStat” movement nearly two decades ago. And O’Malley was energized from meeting dozens of practitioners who are living his vision of data-driven government.

This community—the Mid-Atlantic StatNet—began about six years ago as an informal network of local government chief performance officers across the mid-Atlantic region that meet to share best practices in collecting, analyzing, and using data and evidence to improve decision making. It has steadily grown in both size and sophistication and continues to meet semi-annually with different jurisdictions serving as host.

O’Malley shared his stories and insights with attendees on how to improve performance and results based on his experiences as both a mayor and a governor, which he describes in more detail in a new book he recently completed.

He told the group that leaders today, regardless of political persuasion, need to combine governing, leading, and managing. He noted that there is a relationship between how well we govern and how much we trust one another, and that this new way of governing will be the basis for effective democratic governance in years to come. As he writes in his book: 

“Effective leaders in the Information Age create common platforms for collaborative action.” The key ingredients of these platforms are “the data, the map, and the method for achieving dramatic public-sector progress.”

Turning the Curve in a Maryland County  

Montgomery County, Maryland, appears to be a living example of O’Malley’s vision. It hosted the gathering and several of its new leaders shared their fresh start in how they are using many of the principles espoused by O’Malley to improve results. 

County residents elected a new county executive last Fall, Marc Elrich, and he subsequently hired a pioneer in government budgeting and performance, Andrew Kleine, to be the county’s chief administrative officer. The county’s award-winning CountyStat team supported their transition with a mix of continuity and some important innovations.

County executive Marc Elrich kicked off the meeting with an overview of seven priority outcomes that he is pursuing. These include goals such as a greener county, easier commutes, and safe neighborhoods. The county’s approach to achieving these outcomes is called “Turn the Curve.” Each outcome has three key performance indicators for a total of 21.

County departments developed plans for each of the 21 key performance indicators and use these plans to help guide spending. The key performance indicators were identified by the departments and had to be seen as meaningful to customers.

To oversee implementation, Kleine appointed four assistant chief administrative officers. Each oversees a handful of outcomes and is responsible for helping the departments develop strategies, plans, and prioritize budget proposals.

The county is also finalizing a 10-year financial plan and each department head has signed performance agreements on their commitments to achieve specific targets related to their department’s Turn the Curve plans.

Elrich and Kleine hold quarterly progress meetings with each department, which are coordinated by CountyStat staff, to identify what works and what needs more attention, and to collectively develop options for “turning the curve.” 

The Turn the Curve framework is organized around a handful of questions, such as: How are we doing? (to ensure decision makers understand the problem before developing solutions). For example, the county’s emergency medical services began to explore what they might do differently to increase the resuscitation of heart attack victims from their current level of 35%. Likewise, the Alcoholic Beverage Services department set out to increase the percent of products delivered correctly (e.g., reduce breakage of bottles). A planned incentive for employees is a gain sharing program where employees would share in the savings.

In addition to the Turn the Curve initiative, the county also created a process improvement initiative, the Innovation Accelerator Program, and made innovation training available to staff.  To incentivize departments to participate, Kleine created an Innovation Fund to seed dollars for customer service initiatives that would save money in the long term. Departments would have to repay the fund with savings accrued. The county has hired a new manager to lead the initiative.

How the Approach Evolved  

The Montgomery County approach to embedding data and analytics is built on a foundation that evolved since it was first established in 2007.

CountyStat manager David Gottesman said that when CountyStat was initially launched by former county executive Isiah Leggett, it mirrored O’Malley’s original CitiStat. It focused on departments—their accountability, performance, transparency—and leaders met with department heads on a regular schedule.

In subsequent years, the CountyStat function shifted attention from departments to cross-departmental initiatives. It began to serve more as an internal consultancy and focused on relationship management with the county departments, to help them to leverage their own data. 

In 2019, with new county leadership, the CountyStat function adopted more of a hybrid approach. It swung back to a department-focused approach primarily to help the new administration leaders wrap their heads around operational issues, and also to give department directors, some of whom were new to the county, face time with executive leaders. There are now quarterly progress assessment meetings with each department. In these meetings, there is more of a focus more on learning together, understanding what works, developing course corrections and next steps toward fulfilling their Turn the Curve plans, and tracking progress against targets in their department heads’ performance agreements. Each of the major departments has a public-facing performance dashboard.

There are also dashboards for major countywide initiatives such as Vision Zero, the county’s goal of “no traffic deaths by 2030.” This initiative underpins one of the three key performance indicators for the county’s Safe Neighborhoods goal, one of the seven Turn the Curve priorities.

Next Steps 

Other communities in the region have developed or are currently developing their own performance initiatives with plans, dashboards, and PerformanceStat meetings. All are at different stages of development. The value of the semi-annual gathering is to learn from one another and inspire each other with the progress being achieved.

For example, the City of Alexandria in Virginia and Howard County in Maryland have launched public-facing performance dashboards in recent months with a dozen different categories of indicators. Prince Georges County in Maryland has an internally-facing CountyStat initiative. Likewise, Anne Arundel County in Maryland has developed its own internally-facing ArundelStat dashboard over the past few months and plans to launch a public version in early 2020. And the City of Baltimore is in the process of reconstituting its CitiStat effort, integrating it into a new Office of Performance and Innovation, with details to come.

Taken together, these concerted efforts to use data to improve government performance show steady progress towards O’Malley’s vision nearly two decades ago, which were inspired by a crime-fighting effort piloted in New York City and ultimately modified based on another pioneering effort undertaken by the British government under Tony Blair. Inspiration for government reform comes from many places.

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