Politics

"Stat" Fever

The practice of collecting data to monitor and improve government performance continues to gain momentum and evolve.
by | January 2007
 

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley lit a fire under city agencies in 2000 when he instituted CitiStat, a data-driven strategy for holding managers publicly accountable for their department's performance. Since then, they have had to collect statistics on a variety of measures and convince the mayor and his deputies, in regular meetings, that they are using the best approaches for getting top performance from their employees.

O'Malley is heading off to the Maryland governor's mansion, leaving the CitiStat program behind. But the governor-elect already has announced plans to institute a "stat" program on the state level, focused initially on larger state agencies, namely corrections, juvenile justice and social services. "We see a lot of benefit to openness and transparency and performance measurement," says Matt Gallagher, Baltimore's director of CitiStat who is following O'Malley to Annapolis.

However, there's a "different flavor" to doing performance measurement on the state level, cautions Larisa Benson, director of Washington State's Government Management Accountability and Performance program, or GMAP, which Governor Christine Gregoire instituted in 2005. On such a large scale, it can take longer to see results. In Washington, for example, funds for addressing child abuse had to be redistributed to underperforming regions of the state, not a simple task. "It takes a lot longer to boil down day-to-day operations and figure out how they lead to desired outcomes," Benson says. "You can't just say you're going to reduce poverty 2 percent in the Southwest region."

Modeled after the granddaddy of them all--the New York City Police Department's Compstat program--Baltimore's method of bringing people into a special room, focusing laser-like on one single agency and barking at top personnel to do better has yielded impressive results. The idea has caught on in many other jurisdictions, although the style and methods tend to be kinder and gentler elsewhere.

ProvStat in Providence, SFStat in San Francisco and SyraStat in Syracuse are just a few of the citywide programs that have followed in its wake. In addition, "stat" systems are being utilized by counties such as King County, Washington, and single agencies in large jurisdictions, such as social services in Los Angeles County. Coming soon: PawsStat for animal care and control in L.A. County.

MIXED MEETING

In addition, government executives, in Baltimore and elsewhere, have realized the importance of bringing more than one department into a room at a time, to be held accountable for results that involve several agencies. Washington State's Gregoire, for example, recently brought in several agencies at once to focus on the state's economy. They included the revenue, health, trade and employment departments. "We don't have time to go through 130 agencies," says GMAP director Benson. "They all together share responsibility for economic vitality. It's not one agency's job."

Chicago agrees. For the first year and a half, the city's program was "siloed" around how individual departments were doing, says Lydia Murray, deputy chief of staff for management in Mayor Richard M. Daley's office. This coming year, the city will look at cross- departmental topics. With the mayor targeting particular properties for improvement, the first "mixed" meeting will be on troubled buildings. It will bring together police and the law department, as well as the buildings department. And as Baltimore's program evolved, it also recognized the value of gathering several agencies together to work on particular outcomes. For instance, a KidStat version came out of the mayor's desire to layer services to at-risk youth. A dozen city agencies help contribute to making a child safe, happy and healthy, Gallagher points out.

That Providence, too, is talking about multi-departmental ProvStat meetings should give heart to those jurisdictions that haven't taken the first step toward performance measurement. Undertaking a ProvStat program at all was quite a leap for a city whose data-collection methods had been so poor. The city had to start its program practically from scratch, coaxing the technology and data-collection methods forward, before anyone could get together in a room to discuss it knowledgeably.

Mayor David N. Cicilline, who had his eye on Baltimore's CitiStat program before he took office, laughs about Providence's old methods for maintaining roads. "The system was to fill potholes and pray for a mild winter." Four years later, prayer is no longer part of the city's paving methods.

Cicilline's administration began to institute a performance- measurement strategy as soon as he took office in 2003, but it wasn't a simple task. "We faced a wholly inadequate technology infrastructure," says ProvStat director Pamela Cardillo. "Nothing was collected electronically. It took nearly two years building the tools to collect the data." It meant evaluating all departments' data- collection methods. For many department heads, it was the first time they were using data--electronic or otherwise--to manage. "Before, they winged it," Cardillo says. "I don't know how they were making decisions."

But Providence moved away from the confrontational style that Baltimore is known for. The city tried it but found it wasn't productive. The belief now is that if department heads were to see the data for the first time in a ProvStat meeting, and had to answer questions as to why things looked bad, they wouldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. It might be news to them why work output was low or efficiency levels were not ideal. When they get that information in advance, they have a day to research it. Cicilline was a criminal defense lawyer and is familiar with an adversarial approach and doesn't think it's the best fit for his agency heads. "They're members of my team. They have the same interests I do."

Baltimore's aggressive approach didn't appeal to the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services, either. "They were asking one question after another," says chief deputy Lisa Nunez. "It didn't look like they were working together to find the answer. We said it was a problem for all of us. How do we solve it?" The gentler process makes the county a learning organization, Nunez says. District directors, managers, budget people and others are able to discuss what the mission-critical priorities are and where districts stand on each one.

Chicago uses a "gotcha" style--not in meetings but on the street. The city sends a "mystery" or "secret" shopper to test how front-line workers are doing. Recently, a city worker who had parking tickets to pay stood in line like everyone else, except that this customer evaluated his experience. He took note of how long he waited in line and how courteous and efficient city employees were and reported back.

The city also sends people out to assess pothole repair. At times, secret pothole inspectors have found poorly filled potholes or ones that weren't filled at all, even though the system closed out the repair ticket. Was it a typo or was something else going on? "We've been able to catch broken processes," Murray says.

Jurisdictions with performance-measurement programs can spend years fine-tuning the process. Program directors may find that performance targets are too low and need to be ratcheted up. They may discover that the metrics chosen did not result in desired outcomes. Then they have to adjust.

But when they get the outcomes they'd hoped for, they throw around numbers with the pride of a prizefighter. Chicago has seen "enormous" results, Murray says, conservatively estimating that the city saved $20 million in the first year. The city was able to reduce the number of positions as workers became more productive. After a division chief in Los Angeles complained at a meeting that old equipment was getting in the way of processing time sheets, purchasing officials approved buying new equipment on the spot. Two meetings later, processing was at 100 percent. And, when Cicilline took over in Providence, there was a four-year backlog in tree trimming. Within 18 months, the entire backlog was eliminated.

ANALYSIS BEFORE ACTION

Fort Wayne, Indiana, has a binder full of improvements from performance measurement. But the city uses a different method, called Lean Six Sigma. The method is more familiar to the business community than the public sector. Mayor Graham Richard admires the "stat" system but says it is top-down and doesn't effectively bring in the front- line workers. In Fort Wayne, those workers are given training that helps open their eyes to ideas for saving money and cutting out steps in processes. Richard believes that a finger-pointing, top-down approach results in managers ordering improvements without providing the tools for reaching those goals. "Someone then turns around and says, 'If I knew how to do that I would have done it. How do I do that?'" he notes.

Instead, Fort Wayne provides training that allows workers to think differently about how they do their jobs. "Think of yourself as a detective," Richard says. "You've got a problem to solve." Then teams of people use data in various and precise ways to come up with improvements. It's not a magic bullet, he acknowledges. It still takes a lot of effort and hard work because employees can't radically improve a process without first understanding why there are problems. And that takes data collection and analysis. The method puts an emphasis on the early understanding of problems so people analyze before acting and remove defects at the front end. "Instead of scraping toast, you figure out how never to burn the toast," Richard says.

Since the city started using the process six years ago, the per-foot cost of replacing water mains has dropped from $61 to $49, saving $317,000. Methods for sludge processing improved, saving $28,000 a year and avoiding $1.7 million for extra equipment. Reducing missed trash pickups saved $195,000 a year. Moreover, the city has managed to get seven of its nine union contracts to be performance-based. Richard is working on getting police and fire unions to accept performance- based contracts as well.

So, in Fort Wayne, the streets department's union sets annual goals for snow removal, lane miles resurfaced and the like. Last year, because of savings and meeting goals, workers took home on average $2,000 per person from the performance-based pool. Workers push each other, striving for that extra money, Richard says. "If Sally is loafing, Pete's going to say, 'Let's get this done. I want that bonus for my kid's education fund.'"

Few other jurisdictions offer employees a pool of money. They find other ways to motivate them. In Chicago, the answer for tow-truck drivers was to give the top-performing drivers--those who have the fewest accidents and always have their radios on so they can be ready for the next tow--the newest tow trucks. While it's not a cash bonus, giving the best trucks to the top performers was a big deal, Murray says. They love it. The same holds true for an executive leather chair in the water department. "People really want that chair," she says.

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