The Secret to StateStat's Success

It is the 'in person' feature of StateStat that sets it apart from other successful performance measurement programs.
by | May 12, 2011

There are many performance measurement programs that attempt to use data to guide senior-level decision-making. These efforts have a mixed record, but one program in particular is getting a lot of attention for all the right reasons: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's StateStat.

In late April I attended a session on the program. I went in somewhat skeptical, but came away impressed. In fact, it is the "in person" feature of StateStat that sets it apart from other successful performance measurement programs. Anyone can collect data. But Maryland's senior officials put their data to the test in a face-to-face monthly meeting that gets beyond mere numbers.

The meeting I attended was very intense. The small StateStat staff had done an excellent job analyzing the incoming reports and highlighting issues. The questioning was pointed, the answers precise (if not always complete), and the remaining issues were noted and highlighted for follow-up at the next meeting, only weeks away.

StateStat, like New York's CompStat and Baltimore's CitiStat before it, harnesses data in service to management decisions. Bringing detailed and current reports about a state agency's performance into a meeting with the political appointees and senior career staff on a predictable and frequent basis focuses the minds of all involved.

It is obvious that these meetings have the attention of the highest state officials -- up to and including the governor. O'Malley appears on the StateStat side of the table often enough that not only does everyone show up, they show up well prepared. In my 20 years as a senior executive in the federal government, I almost never knew whether the reports I prepared were even read by the decision-makers above me.

Often the folks at the top of the pyramid deal with disembodied data that they don't always understand or trust. They are reluctant to make real decisions on what may be questionable numbers.

Most behavioral scientists agree that "cognitive processes lead to conclusions, while affective processes lead to decisions." What this means, in essence, is that action follows involvement, not rationality. In the 21st century, humans have both "silicon" and "carbon" interactions. Reading from computer screens and sending e-mail are silicon interactions, and generally limited to a cognitive impact at best. Meetings and lunches or sharing coffee and stories are known as carbon interactions, since they involve carbon-based life forms or humans.

These carbon interactions tap into our feelings and emotions. When you e-mail off a report or document, you are never sure that anyone is really reading it. Feedback is limited. But when the governor is right there asking you exactly what this chart means, or how you measured that particular piece of data, you don't have to be told that what you are doing is important.

Leadership involves both data and decisions. The volume of data can be overwhelming these days, while leadership is in short supply. StateStat brings silicon content into a carbon context.

The public accountability of all concerned makes for high drama as well. Even if the governor just might attend that day, it changes the dynamic. Even when he doesn't attend, everyone knows that he's going to be asking his StateStat staff how it went. His commitment to the process is unquestioned.

StateStat is a model for moving forward on any set of goals. By combining solid performance data with consistent, in-person leadership, StateStat meetings combine data plus humans, which makes for a very productive process.

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