Baltimore Mayor-Turned-Governor Expands GIS Throughout Maryland

By Joe Francica

What makes a good politician? Sometimes it is good personal skills, sometimes it is good leadership, and sometimes it is a clear vision. Martin O'Malley, governor of Maryland, has all of those - and he also has an understanding of how and where technology can support a political agenda. In this interview with Editor-in-Chief Joe Francica, O'Malley explained his vision as well as the technical, cultural and budgetary challenges he faced while mayor of Baltimore and how he brought his success at the city level to the governor's office.

Martin O'Malley began his term as the mayor of Baltimore facing some daunting challenges that would paralyze most newly elected officials. He inherited a 16,000-person government in a city that had suffered the greatest drop in population the country had seen in 30 years. At the time, there was very little information from city government operations that was being measured in a real-time manner. "Information wasn't reaching the policymakers, making it impossible to steer the ship," said O'Malley. This left a legacy of underperforming schools and businesses. So he decided to institute a program similar to one in New York City that relied on performance measurements. O'Malley copied the successful COMSTAT program used by the New York Police Department (NYPD), which supported the work of police officers in crime-prone areas. That led to the development of a program he called CITYSTAT, which provided timely and accurate information to be shared by all. "Those of us in the public sector are good at measuring input (costs, etc.) but not as good at measuring output," O'Malley commented. His objective: make Baltimore a safer, better place to grow up.

In 2007, O'Malley brought this vision to the Maryland statehouse as governor and began a similar program, called STATESTAT [Corrected from STATSTAT to STATESTAT, per comment. -Ed.]. He and his team are developing a single statewide base map, 400 years after John Smith drew the first map of the Chesapeake Bay. He's using the statewide map to better assess and analyze the state's potential for smart, sustained development.

Over the last three decades, the population in Maryland has grown by 30%, but land development has increased by 100%. "If we do not grow with smarter systems, we will decimate our land; it's simply not sustainable," said O'Malley. Population growth is expected to exceed one million people over the next several years as a result of the Armed Forces Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative. Maps are being used to develop BRAC zones, areas where growth may be sustainable as the 40,000 to 60,000 new jobs are absorbed in the next few years. Preparations for those relocating to the state need to be guided by a vision for smart growth, clustering development around existing infrastructure and thereby reducing the overall carbon footprint of the state.

Joe Francica sat down with Governor O'Malley to discuss his vision for using GIS in a variety of government programs, and how the technology helps him govern.

Joe Francica (JF): How did you come to use GIS as mayor of Baltimore?

Martin O'Malley (MO):
I had never run anything larger than my own law office. I was all by myself; I didn't even have my own secretary. When I was elected to be mayor of Baltimore, I had a two-billion-dollar a year, sixty-thousand-person organization that was confronting some really serious challenges of public health, drug addiction, public safety, and one of the worst violent crime rates in the nation, if not the worst. And after 30 years of population loss, people voted by their feet. We had zero revenues to do anything about it and we had city government that was demoralized, defeatist, understaffed and under-appreciated, and had become excuse-ridden. In order to bust out of that, I had the help of two great Jacks. One was Jack Maple, the man behind COMSTAT in New York City and the NYPD under commissioner Bratton's leadership; and the other was Jack Dangermond, with his simple, off-the-shelf software that allowed you to take complex, disjointed organizations and get them to coordinate and map all of the important functions that they perform. So, that's my short and long answer to the question…it's one thing to do it in a police department, it's another to do it across every city department and agency.

JF: Were you able to govern and manage with this technology? Was it more your vision to push it down or was someone pushing up saying, "Hey, we need to use this technology on a daily basis and here's the information it can provide."

Fortunately we have a strong mayor form of government, so it's not as if every member of the council gets a year as mayor…but that had to be paired with a total, unrelenting executive commitment in order to create that sort of cultural change. There were good people in every department. Jack Maple has this wonderful theory of human progress and activity. He said that basically 10% of the people are your hard-working leaders, 10% of your people are slackers, and 80% will lean back toward the slacker or lean forward toward progress depending on whether they recognize this. So with the performance measuring and mapping of the GIS we were able to do a much better job, and a more regular job, of acknowledging, thanking, praising and empowering that leadership class in order to create a performance-based meritocracy. Now by the time we left, I can't say honestly that that permeated throughout the whole hierarchy of government. But I can say that within a year after we started, we were meeting every two weeks with 14 departments coming in one every 14 days. In the intervening week, they were running their own stats, by the end of our first year, and running the same process with the mapping [system] internally within their organizations before meeting face-to-face with my command staff.

JF: So what was the greater challenge? Was it a cultural challenge or a technical challenge? Perhaps a budgetary challenge?

It was both. It was a cultural challenge and a technical challenge…It actually wasn't that much money. We had a budget challenge; we had tremendous budget challenges. We actually had a federal government with a leader who believed our government should work. So we were able to get an additional 200 cops. We had a program to demolish our high-rise public housing that was choking the city and choking the families within them. We had a federal government that would help. We requisitioned staff from other places. We found we already had a phenomenal platform to begin building our GIS at the department of public works. The technical stuff, at first, happened much more quickly than the cultural change. By the end, both were progressing on their individual tracks. And every time visitors would come from all over the world to see our CITYSTAT room…sometimes they'd look at the maps and leave discouraged because they felt there was no way they could get to that point. But, you know, we didn't get to that week's iteration of the map and those layers in the first week and we didn't get to it in the second week, but every week we worked on it the growth became incremental and steady, and so did the culture change.

JF: And now what about at the state level? Are you able to introduce those same things?

We're doing it at the state level, as well. We've created a statewide base map. It is creating platforms and sometimes creating, for the first time, trust between state and local government; especially tricky where land issues and land consumption coincide.

JF: Do you feel that you can manage and govern from a geographical perspective? And do policymakers understand that so much information is tied to geography?

Yeah, it's everything…accountability is a scary thing. Once you declare a goal, you are pretty much exposed. You're exposed if you succeed and you're exposed if you fail…That fear of the embarrassment of not succeeding is something that often times discourages managers, borough heads, department heads, and elected officials from embracing the openness, the transparency and accountability that comes with this. This is why the various governments that have come to see our CITYSTAT, now STATESTAT, at work…the newly elected officials tend to embrace it more readily than those who have already been in [office] for a number of years because it means exposing the ward's shortcomings. So, conversely…in Baltimore, especially at that time that I was fortunate enough to be given the trust of governing, there was a certain respect and - pardon for using the word in public service, "inspiration" - that comes about when you put your political neck on the line and say to the people you are leading that we are going to cut violent crime in half. You make a commitment like that, and they know it's not something you do lightly and they know there is tremendous political peril if you fail. So, the downside of declaring goals and measuring performance and doing it like that is that the naysayers can always say, "Ah, ha, ha." Either you failed or you were insincere and made a false promise you never intended to keep. My opponents beat the tar out of me in the reelection, and then when I ran for governor, because I made a commitment to cut violent crime, including homicides, in half. You know, we didn't get there. We got to about 40% or 44% for violent crime, and homicides we only got down by 25% or 30%. But I found that people were actually smart enough to understand the power of setting goals, measurement and performance.

Published Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Written by Joe Francica

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