Cities Using New Technology to Manage the Unmanageable

Originally printed in The Boston Herald

July 7, 2001
Charles Euchner, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston

A new system of city management which, enables mayors and key department officials to track and monitor every aspect of social conditions and service delivery, could be coming to Massachusetts.

Eight times a week, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley leads his cabinet through a new process of analysis based on a computer database that tracks performance on hundreds of measures. The program, called CitiStat, is modeled after the CompStat program that New York City pioneered to attack crime with daily tracking of criminal behavior and neighborhood conditions.

"Baltimore has raised the bar on municipal government management," said Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay after she and other officials from Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville visited Baltimore officials. "In a short period of time, they have improved the efficiency of city services, reduced costs and made City Hall more accountable to citizens. We will be taking a close look at how elements of CitiStat could be adopted here in Somerville in the near future."

CitiStat is based on the proposition that information is power. In today's age of cheap high-speed computing, government has the capacity to track and use data about all manner of public-sector behavior. Data can be put on easy-to-use graphs and charts, not to mention maps that depict every square inch of the city.

Every day, Baltimore's departments gather data about city workers, housing, playgrounds, streets, railroad crossings, potholes, graffiti, snow plows, or other vehicles, emergency fire calls, leaf collections, parking permits.

Departments enter data into a simple computer program and every two weeks produce a 10-15 page report for the mayor's staff. The staff briefs the mayor on important trends, trouble spots and continuing challenges.

Then the fun begins. The mayor and his staff meet with department heads to hash out the data. Department officials take turns at the CitiStat room podium - the hot seat - as graphs, charts, and maps flash on two huge screens. The mayor and his staff pepper the department heads with questions.

The questions come in a cascade: What happened to overtime hours? What about the worker who's been out three weeks? Have you issued written reprimands or suspensions? Why didn't the skateboard park get repaired quicker? How are we monitoring safety standards? What's the injury record at the park? Why didn't the vehicles get repaired quicker? When can we get a complete summary for capital projects? What is the strategy foi preventive maintenance?

Gathering, sorting and displaying such data might seem a monumental task. But the $20,OOO software offers a simple format for compiling information. All departments have at least a handful of computer-savvy twentysomethings, who can do the data work at no extra staff cost.

CitiStat has cost Baltimore $285.000 for its first 11 months - including four full-time staffers, computer equipment and software and new furniture for the CitiStat room. Not counting improved service delivery, officials estimate savings of $132 mlllion - $6 mlllion in overtime, $5 mlllion in reduced costs and increased revenues, and $12 million in reduced absenteeism.

The officials from the Boston area delegation vow to bring the tool home. Cambridge officials plan to bring the system to bear on personnel issues first. Kelly Gay and her chief financial and information technology aides want to use CitiStat to improve delivery of services on the Internet, as well as everyday management.

We're going to do this," Kelly Gay whispered to a colleague during the Baltimore presentation. We need all the tools we can get"