Making 311 Work

Baltimore mayor Shelia Dixon announced she will resign in February after being convicted of misuse of gift cards donated to her office. Interestingly, many citizens...
by | January 24, 2010

Baltimore mayor Shelia Dixon announced she will resign in February after being convicted of misuse of gift cards donated to her office. Interestingly, many citizens will be sad to see her go. They felt that she was an effective manager who got things done.

That wasn't always the perception. Several years ago, when she took over as mayor from Martin O'Malley after he was elected governor of Maryland, many citizens were concerned that services would decline. O'Malley had developed a strong reputation for being an effective manager and was recognized nationally for developing his vaunted "citi-stat" management approach in 2000. Many thought Dixon would abandon it. But she didn't. In fact, she extended it by focusing her attention not just on how well individual agencies were doing, but also on key priorities focused on a "cleaner, greener, safer, and healthier Baltimore."

The story of Baltimore's Citi-Stat has been told many times, but none so compellingly as by Bob Behn of Harvard's Kennedy School, who has been studying what he calls the "performance-stat" phenomena that has swept localities - and some state governments - over the past decade. His key observation is that it isn't the system that matters. He says that there is no single, right answer to how to develop a successful management performance and accountability structure. Success depends heavily on committed leadership, relentless follow-up, and clear goals. As Behn puts it: ". . . those who would design a CitiStat for (their) city need to start with their purpose."

With this in mind, Behn examined Baltimore's Citi-Stat model, starting while O'Malley was mayor, and then visited several dozens similar efforts around the country. He used these insights to develop a set of questions-and-answers to help others think through whether it can be a management approach that would work for them.

What Is Citi-Stat?

CitiStat is a leadership strategy to mobilize city agencies to produce specific results. It is based on a series of regular, periodic meetings with the mayor and his/her leadership team and each city agency's leadership. The meetings use data to analyze past performance, set new performance objectives, and examine overall performance strategies. The key is what happens after the goal setting -- persistent follow-up on decisions and commitments is critical.

How Do You Get Started?

Behn recommends that mayors "start with what you have." After all, most agencies have financial and personnel data. Some have activity and performance information. He says you don't need much equipment; Baltimore's CitiStat started with $20,000 in room renovations to create a center for the meetings.

He also recommends looking for some quick wins. One approach is to start by eliminating annoyingly small yet clearly consequential barriers preventing agencies from getting better results. Baltimore started with abuse of staff overtime and potholes. In addition to quick wins, Behn says, "set some priorities." If everything is top priority, then there are no priorities. He suggests starting with the mayor's priorities!

What Kind of Measures and Data Do You Collect?

The choice of measures, according to Behn, depends on what the mayor is trying to accomplish. For example, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley emphasized services to citizens, so these were the kinds of data collected. Baltimore ultimately decided to invest in a "311" service call system that allowed tracking of maintenance calls to the city. This became the basis for the city's "48-hour pothole repair guarantee."

This call system consisted of 12 workstations receiving 3,000 calls a day (in a city of 640,000). It required a $2 million initial investment and involves $4.6 million in annual operating costs. However, this system provides data to manage by, and keeps citizens in the loop. Behn says: "Baltimore has to check to be sure that the citizen's request for service has indeed been satisfied. It does this by randomly calling each week 100 citizens to see if they are satisfied with the city's work."

What Kind of Infrastructure Is Needed?

Behn says the needs are fairly minimal. You need a regular space to hold the meetings, and you need skilled data analysts. The room needs to be large enough for about a dozen agency staff and a dozen key mayoral appointees. The room doesn't have to be fancy, but should have the ability to visually share graphics and statistics.

CitiStat had seven analysts in Baltimore under Mayor O'Malley, budgeted at $509,000. The staff collects the data, prepares analyses for the meetings, and follows up on commitments made at the meetings.

What Are the Responsibilities of the Different Players?

There are four key players. First, the Mayor is responsible for making it all happen. He (or she) must convince managers that CitiStat is for real in order to get their attention. At first, the mayor has to spend time and money on the initiative. Once systems are in place, the mayor can authorize others to act on his or her behalf.

Second, key mayoral appointees need to participate in the meetings and solution-development. They are responsible for providing insights and break down barriers in mission-support functions such as IT, human resources, training, budget, etc.

Third is the CitiStat staff. They identify performance deficits and suggest strategies for improvement. They are typically located in the mayor's office.

Finally, and most importantly, is the role of individual agency directors and managers. Their job in the meetings is to answer questions, explain existing approaches, offer new ideas, produce results, and prepare for the CitiStat meetings. Many agency heads run their own version of Citi-Stat within their agencies to both prepare for the mayor's meetings, but also as a way of running their own operations.

How Do the Citi-Stat Meetings Work?

Every two weeks each agency is the focus of a CitiStat meeting. Some agencies - such as police and schools -- have a weekly review. As a result, the mayor's staff attends 4-8 meetings a week, of about 2 hours in length each. The meeting agendas are set by the Deputy Mayor and the CitiStat staff. An agency's CitiStat analyst develops a "day-before" memo summarizing the issues to be addressed, and potential questions to be asked. The agency director does not control the agenda or deliver a formal presentation. The meetings are very interactive and there is always a follow up memo prepared at the end of each meeting that often serves as the kick-off question at the next meeting.

While this is how Baltimore implemented its CitiStat system, Behn cautions: "There is no correct, prescribed, fixed 'model' for CitiStat. No one has created the 'mold' from which all other CitiStats must be cast. . . . You will need to recognize the core idea contained in each answer and then figure out how to make it work in your own city." In fact, O'Malley didn't just replicate the system when he became governor, but adapted it to work more effectively in his new environment as governor of a state.


Jonathan D. Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government and a partner with IBM Global Business Services. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and can be reached at

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also an associate partner with IBM Global Business Services and a fellow of the National Academy. He can be reached at

For more on this topic, read Bob Behn's "What All Mayors Would Like to Know About Baltimore's CitiStat Performance Strategy ."