The Daily Record: Bringing accountability to city government

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on September 17, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

No sooner had Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced last Friday that she would not seek re-election than pronouncements assessing her tenure in office started rolling in from pundits and the public alike.

These assessments of her tenure continue to a degree. A recent news report examined how economic indicators, like unemployment and housing construction, have performed under Rawlings-Blake.

With the mayor’s recent announcement, instead of looking back, let’s look ahead to the upcoming mayoral election and begin a dialogue about ensuring the next administration has a more sophisticated and concrete way to measure what it delivers.

What specific goals and metrics to improve resident’s lives should Baltimore voters expect of the next mayor? None are inked on paper. But promises and expectations are very likely to be identified during the campaign cycle by either the candidates or through public input.

Those promises and expectations should be tracked and help drive the initiative of the next mayoral administration. That is common in the private sector. When a major corporation hires a new top chief executive officer, the job often comes with a specific set of goals or metrics to meet as he or she moves forward.

These may range from improving the company’s profitability by a certain percentage to reducing overhead costs by a specific amount. At the end of the day, the company’s board of directors and shareholders lay out what they want the company to be — or to become — under the leadership of the new chief executive.

And so perhaps Baltimore voters should adopt the same approach as they look to 2016.

Collectively we should pose the question: What do we want Baltimore to be four years from now?

From there, specific goals or accomplishments need to be set for the next mayor to meet so the city is striving toward that grand collective vision.

Some areas of high public interest that a mayor could be asked to focus on by voters:

  • A public safety system that significantly reduces violent crime and dismantles Baltimore gangs for good.
  • Innovative educational initiatives that position students for the global economy of the future.
  • An integrated mass transit system that connects residents, particularly in transit dependent areas of the city, to key job centers.
  • An attractive and competitive business environment that spurs economic growth, job retention and expansion.
  • A sound and stable long-term city budget.

What works

Setting quantitative benchmarks for a mayor to meet or exceed such goals may seem at first a bit novel to some voters.

But data is collected to assess all sorts of things in government these days, from student-teacher ratios to crime trends. Software that collects, analyzes and maps data is increasingly being used to spot city trends, emerging problems, and even help identify potential solutions.

Also, there’s an interesting movement afoot to spur cities to not only collect and use data this way to address tough problems, but to open it up to public review, scrutiny and comment.

Last month Bloomberg Philanthropies announced it had issued grants to eight mid-sized U.S. cities under its What Works Cities program to “enhance their use of data and evidence in order to improve services, inform local decision making and engage citizens.” Bloomberg expects to issue What Works Cities grants to 100 cities by 2017.

Some cities have embraced the concept of using software programs to track city agencies and services – Baltimore being one of the first with the introduction of CitiStat by former Mayor Martin O’Malley. Of late, CitiStat has not lived up to its potential or its initial successful implementation. That is unfortunate as Baltimore was a pioneer in this field of city management and should strive to be the most efficiently run government operation possible.

Bloomberg Philanthropies identifies on its website a successful program entitled BlightStat, launched in New Orleans, which helped reduce blighted residences in the city by 10,000 in two years. And New York has used air pollution data to identify areas of the city with poor air quality and local sources contributing to it, and then used that information to address the problem.

Meanwhile, O’Malley, as governor, used a system called StateStat, modeled after his CitiStat program, to track state agencies and their performance toward 15 specific goals. These ranged from driving down homicides statewide to recovering jobs lost during the recession.

The point is, high-tech systems to collect and analyze government data are a powerful new tool and being leveraged by some forward-thinking elected leaders to drive accountability and innovation in government agencies.

And so as we look to the 2016 election in Baltimore, it seems time for voters to embrace and leverage this new technology and put it to the test by demanding measurable goals and metrics for the next mayor to meet. That just might put Baltimore back at the forefront of this exciting nexus of big data, technology and city management and provide a process for transparency, innovation and accountability.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Record.  

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