Governing by numbers

July 22, 2002

TWO YEARS ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley borrowed an electronic-age crime-fighting tool from New York: He began using computer mapping for governing.

He has won acclaim for it. Visitors come from all over the United States -- and even some foreign countries -- to see how various municipal departments are regularly grilled about spending, overtime, absenteeism and overall performance. If persistent complaints are not addressed, heads roll.

But for all its potential, CitiStat is a mere management tool. It still needs a manager to fully employ its possibilities. In this respect, Mr. O'Malley has used it shrewdly, balancing numerical absolutes with political realities.

The recent firing of Recreation and Parks Director Marvin F. Billups Jr. is an example.

Mr. Billups got the blame for the unkempt appearance of parks, resistance to change and his agency's overall lethargy. All this was documented. However, CitiStat didn't map the years of starvation budgets and organizational upheaval that preceded Mr. Billups, or the hiring freeze that may have made him reluctant to fire unsatisfactory underlings who could not be replaced.

By firing Mr. Billups, Mayor O'Malley sent a message to other department heads who are more difficult to replace: Once CitiStat identifies a problem, don't try to defend the status quo or find excuses.

No key agency has been immune to changes dictated by CitiStat and its cadre of eight analysts. Their criticism has triggered demotions, reassignments and changes in the Department of Public Works work routines. Ditto for the housing department.

"Just about everything government does should be measured. If you can't measure it, you should ask: `Why are you doing it?'" says a CitiStat evaluator. He estimates that by adopting stricter controls, the city saved $13 million in the first year alone; overtime spending has been reduced by 40 percent.

Regular evaluation of key departments has shock value, particularly because the mayor is present, along with the labor commissioner, city solicitor and personnel director. They can demolish excuses, and often do.

CitiStat, by itself, doesn't govern. That's the mayor's job. He has shown he knows how to use this computerized monitoring system to change the way City Hall operates. That's why other cities are emulating this Baltimore innovation.

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