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Restless for Results

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is tracking performance on a scale never seen before in local government. He wants change, in a hurry.

On the sixth floor of Baltimore's city hall is a cramped and dimly lit room with a lonely podium near the center. The stand is flanked on three sides by a wooden desk, and on the wall behind it are a pair of giant projection screens. The whole place doesn't look like much. But it is here, despite the unassuming appearance, that Baltimore's bureaucracy is being systematically turned on its head. This room may even turn out to be the birthplace of a new way--the Martin O'Malley way--of managing local government.

Come here on a Thursday or a Friday, and you'll find the room packed with Baltimore's top brass, including O'Malley, Baltimore's energetic new mayor, and most of his cabinet. The projection screens are awash with spreadsheets, graphs and maps, visual representations of how well each city agency is doing its job. Behind the podium stand the agency heads and other top-level managers who are peppered for an hour and a half with questions. Why is overtime for this work team up? Why are customer complaints in that neighborhood down? The mayor wants answers. If nobody knows, they'd better find out by the end of the day. And rest assured, the same question will come up exactly two weeks later, the next time these managers come to Citistat.

If all this sounds a little familiar--the war room, the maps, the intense questioning--it's because O'Malley borrowed the idea from the New York Police Department. In the mid-1990s, the NYPD pioneered the use of computer-driven statistics to hold cops accountable for reducing crime. O'Malley is the first mayor to take the concept and apply it to an entire local government. Citistat is the cornerstone of O'Malley's efforts to dig Baltimore out of a crippling budget deficit and to turn around a city that has been teetering on the brink of disaster for a decade.

The approach is pure form for a youthful mayor whose impatient style has defined his first year in office. O'Malley is 38 years old, and Citistat is imbued with his restless sense that Baltimore simply cannot afford to wait any longer. Other cities measure performance, but none examine the performance of their agencies so relentlessly every two weeks. "If we only looked at performance every year at budget time, I'd be old and gray before anything would change," O'Malley says in a low voice that hints at his Irish roots. He begins snapping his fingers rapidly, indicating the pace he likes. "Citistat brings the sense of urgency that we need around here."

Urgent is a good word to describe O'Malley and his first 16 months as mayor. He brings to the job a conspicuous passion that was missing for 12 years under his predecessor, the quietly cerebral Kurt Schmoke. When O'Malley's first choices for housing commissioner and police chief let him down early on, he replaced them with people more dedicated to shaking things up. When the city's criminal prosecutor dropped corruption charges against a police officer, setting back an effort to root out corruption at the department, O'Malley publicly lashed out: "She doesn't even have the goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case, and I'm tired of it," he told a reporter. "If she doesn't have respect for the police, if she doesn't have respect for the people of this city, maybe she should get the hell out and let somebody else in who's not afraid to do the goddamn job."

No issue is more urgent in Baltimore than crime. While crime rates in other cities plummeted in the 1990s, Baltimore's remained stuck, a fact that was brought home every week on the TV show "Homicide." In his 1999 campaign, then-city councilman O'Malley tied his political future to a high-profile pledge to accomplish something that had come to seem impossible: reducing the murder rate below 300 a year. Even the mayor's critics were impressed when the body count for 2000 totaled 262, the lowest level in more than a decade.

There is a new air of optimism in Baltimore these days, and most people seem willing to give O'Malley the credit. Some things, such as the city's pro football team winning the Super Bowl, were clearly beyond his control. But there is no question that the tone in City Hall is a major part of the change. Time and again, O'Malley calls Baltimore the "greatest city in the world," and seems actually to mean it. He plays guitar and sings in a Celtic rock band called O'Malley's March, which only adds to his youthful image--an image that is starting to rub off on the community as a whole. "His most important contribution is that he's restored hope in this city," says Marsha Schachtel, a Johns Hopkins University expert on city politics.

O'Malley's intensity has gotten him into trouble. The stinging remarks about the prosecutor, who is black, riled some in the city's African-American community. But most have been forgiving, if only because they accept the fact that Baltimore's ills may require short- tempered impatience to solve. The city faces a glut of urban challenges that are among the country's nastiest: one in 10 residents is addicted to drugs, and in the 1990s, the middle-class fled for the suburbs at a rate of 1,000 emigres a month. Some 40,000 houses were left behind, vacant and decaying in some of the nation's poorest and most violent neighborhoods.

Intractable as many of these problems seem, O'Malley believes that his greatest challenge lies not on the streets, but in City Hall. Baltimore's bureaucracy does not generally share the mayor's impatient attitude, and drilling accountability down into the bowels of the organization will be no easy task. Baltimore is the sort of place where work rules have long gone unenforced and the payroll is bloated with the fat of political patronage. If you ask why things are done a certain way, the likely answer is because they've always been done that way.

On the sixth floor, at Citistat, all that is beginning to change.

As you walk into O'Malley's war room, a large painting hangs on the wall to your left. It is a centuries-old portrait, in the dark tones of the Dutch masters, depicting a sly-looking bearded man wearing a hat. Nobody knows who the man is. But he so clearly reminds O'Malley of a certain friend that he had the portrait taken off the wall of a bar in the Fells Point neighborhood and delivered to City Hall. Perched awkwardly atop the frame is a white name card. In black letters, the card says "Mr. Maple."

The resemblance is to Jack Maple, the famously dapper crime fighter who devised the Compstat system in New York. In the fall of 1999, after O'Malley had won his Democratic mayoral primary, all but securing a win in November, he and Maple went for a drive through some of the roughest parts of East Baltimore. As they drove, they played a game of Spot the Cop. It turned out the officers weren't very easy to find. Conversation turned to the revival Compstat had brought to policing in New York, how putting commanders on a "hot seat" and holding them accountable in front of their peers had focused the NYPD on reducing offenses like never before. Maple suggested the same approach would work in any kind of government organization. That idea sparked a new game: O'Malley tossed out the names of agency after agency, and Maple fired back examples of metrics one might use to gauge their performance.

In the wake of NYPD's remarkable success, police departments across the country raced to put together Compstat programs of their own. So far, however, the idea has been surprisingly slow to catch on in government at large. Washington State borrowed the model for its salmon recovery program. Denver and Oakland are using statistics in selective ways to improve performance and hold managers accountable. But Baltimore is the first city to apply Maple's philosophy across the bureaucratic board.

Citistat began last June, with managers from the Department of Public Works the first to take the hot seat. It is too early to say whether the program will be the resounding success that its police counterpart was in New York. Sit in on just one Citistat session, however, and you immediately see how the statistics, the intense Q & A and the unrelenting follow-up are beginning to unravel a Byzantine bureaucracy, both at its highest and lowest levels.

Situated around the war room desk is a virtual cabinet meeting, headed by Michael Enright, the mayor's right-hand man and a close friend since high school. To one side of the table are a deputy mayor, the personnel director, the labor commissioner and the city solicitor. On the other side are the Citistat director, the finance director and the chief information officer. Enright runs the show, but O'Malley is usually there.

Enright pours through the data report for the agency appearing before him--on one recent day, the health department. Sifting the numbers, he stops where aberrations stand out. The questioning begins: "Why the dip in average restaurant inspections performed?"

The manager in charge of inspections stands up and moves to the podium, as a graph pops up on the screen behind him. It shows that average inspections increased substantially after Citistat began, reaching a plateau at 5 per day, but have fallen back to 4.5 in recent weeks. The manager responds that his staff is going full guns, and that to work them harder would sacrifice the quality of their inspections.

Someone else behind the desk chimes in: "There's no room for improvement?"

"I'm satisfied with our performance."

Enright remains skeptical. There is a backlog of hundreds of restaurants to be checked. He flips to a spreadsheet showing how many jobs individual inspectors are doing, pointing out employees whose inspection numbers are down. "No city agency is running at optimal levels," he says. "You're telling me you're at peak performance?"

Several months ago, the solid waste bureau of Public Works was at Citistat, and the question arose why managers chose not to fire problem employees. The reply was that managers thought a hiring freeze was on, and they figured that keeping bad apples on the payroll was better than losing the positions altogether. The hiring freeze was over, it turned out, and O'Malley made it clear that managers should fill vacancies left open by firings. "There is a great creative dynamic because all the principals are in the room," Enright says. "We don't need 22 memos to get an issue resolved."

Not surprisingly, the managers who are forced to go through these inquisitions are less than thrilled. Mid-level managers were especially wary in the beginning. What is this, they asked, some kind of torture chamber? "The division people who are held to these measures feel already that they work hard and are underpaid," says health chief Peter Beilenson. "They wondered what's in it for them? Will this just get them punished?"

And some of the managers continue to be frustrated. Numbers don't lie, but they can be misleading. Food inspectors, for example, make a legitimate point that quantity of inspections does not equal quality. If they rush jobs to get their numbers up, they risk encouraging an outbreak of food-borne disease. Others gripe that it's not easy to measure the outcome of what they do. Take Recreation and Parks: It's no problem determining how many people use a recreation center, but does that suggest whether it's increased their quality of life?

Then there's the time spent collecting data. Baltimore's information technology is in abysmal shape: In Public Works, much of the data needed for Citistat was stored on paper. In one early moment of Citistat drama, a manager from that department snapped at Enright. "How am I supposed to do my job if I spend all my time collecting data?"

Managers who come to Citistat ill prepared often emerge from the sessions red-faced and embarrassed before their peers. But for the most part, they are coming around. Many are starting to see Citistat as an opportunity. When else have they had a bi-weekly audience with the mayor and his top brass? "Citistat has redefined what our jobs are," says Recreation and Parks chief Marvin Billups. "Collecting all this data has BECOME our jobs. We need to constantly evaluate what we're doing and see if it makes a difference."

If Martin O'Malley stole the book from Jack Maple, he also swiped a chapter from Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia. When Rendell took office in 1992, with his city teetering on a fiscal precipice, he asked business leaders for their advice on how to save money and make government work better. O'Malley did the same thing. Even before his swearing-in, he turned to the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city's most powerful business organization, and the Presidents' Roundtable, a group of minority business leaders. O'Malley asked these two groups to probe the operations of five city agencies, and not to hold back in making recommendations.

Seeking out business advice sent a strong signal that the days of politics-as-usual were over at City Hall, an important gesture in a town that has been bleeding jobs to the suburbs. O'Malley figured the review might discover cost savings and new efficiencies that could help close the gap on a $12.5 million deficit. But most significant, the business leaders' report, which was called "Managing for Success," offered O'Malley political cover to do some necessary but unpopular things.

Nowhere was this more evident than during a debate about reorganizing the city's fire and ambulance services. Over the years, demand for emergency medical services has increased steadily in the city, but resources have still been massed toward fighting fires. Repeated efforts to close firehouses collapsed due to political resistance from the affected neighborhoods. The business study tackled the imbalance in fire and ambulance service, and showed how it resulted in much slower response times. When O'Malley began pushing the firehouse issue last May, the business recommendation proved potent ammunition. The mayor got seven fire companies closed and put the savings into four EMS units. Emergency response times have improved dramatically, and fire response times have held steady. "The business report gave O'Malley something he could hold up and point to," says Johns Hopkins' Schachtel. "He could say this group of top managers from business and the nonprofit sector have agreed that this is a logical step to take."

O'Malley's approach on this issue was popular with the corporate community, but it outraged the city's labor unions. The unions suspected business leaders would use the report as a vehicle to promote privatization. That hunch proved correct: "Managing for Success" suggested contracting out several functions in the housing department, including property management and the Section 8 voucher program. It promoted "managed competition," the idea popularized by former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, for many functions within the public works department, including the city's water and wastewater facilities.

But unlike Philadelphia's Rendell, O'Malley has decided not to go to war with the unions, at least so far. While accepting most of the business leaders' recommendations, he has put off privatization of any large functions. The goal, it seems, is to give Citistat a chance. O'Malley holds out the prospect that if Citistat succeeds in making agencies more accountable, massive outsourcing may not be necessary.

Union leaders have welcomed that gesture, but their relations with the new mayor still have been tense. Firefighters vehemently opposed the plan to close firehouses, even though O'Malley said no jobs would be lost. The unions complained when the city offered them 2 percent pay raises, at a time when police officers were getting a 30 percent hike over three years. And there has been griping over Citistat: Union leaders want to be invited to the meetings. "The overall goal to have more accountability makes sense," says Sheila Jordan, president of the City Union of Baltimore. "But if he's really serious about making these kinds of changes, he should have all the people involved as part of it."

O'Malley says he would like to include the unions at Citistat, but he worries that their participation could stifle the creative dynamic that is the heart and soul of the sessions. The Q & A unravels contract issues that may come up in future labor negotiations, and the administration doesn't want to show its hand. "I don't think the unions would invite me to their strategy sessions," the mayor argues.

Increasingly, Citistat is being used to get agencies to work together. Last year, Baltimore began tackling the problem of lead paint poisoning with a program called "Leadstat." Cases of poisoning in children were marked on a map with red dots, and the many players involved in lead abatement--health, housing and environment officials from both city and state government--began meeting every other Tuesday to figure out what it would take to turn each dot to green.

Through Leadstat, the agencies identified the many cross- jurisdictional barriers that had prevented Baltimore from abating a single case of lead poisoning in 10 years. They agreed to cross-train housing and health inspectors to end the overlap in enforcement efforts. In one year, 127 red dots have turned to green, and when all outstanding cases are finally abated, the city will turn to a more proactive stance to prevent lead poisoning from happening in the first place.

Similar efforts are under way or planned in other areas: DrugStat measures how well drug treatment centers are doing their jobs; KidStat will measure the city's efforts at reducing youth violence. HomelessStat will measure social service agencies' efforts to treat and house the homeless.

It is still early yet, and as Citistat expands to measure ever more of what Baltimore agencies do, the big question is whether the commitment to this philosophy will last. O'Malley's early popularity has Maryland's political scene buzzing that he'll run for governor next year, and the mayor has done little to play down the rumor.

But what's certain is that other mayors will be watching with interest. As Compstat changed the face of policing in the 1990s, Citistat has the potential to change the way city government works all over America. "Baltimore has set up a model," says urban expert Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, "and if it succeeds it will be imitated across the country. Especially for those mayors and cities that are looking to break out of failure."

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