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Running the city by the numbers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Mayor Martin O'Malley launched his high-tech Citistat program two years ago, many grumbled it was nothing more than a public relations ploy: a bunch of computers flashing data about city services on jumbo screens in City Hall.

But the firing of city parks director Marvin F. Billups Jr. on July 3 showed how the biweekly Citistat data review sessions have become a driving force in O'Malley's administration. The action also demonstrated how hard the mayor can come down on those who don't produce the numbers and results he wants.

Unacceptable data and answers also contributed to the replacement Feb. 1 of the head of the city's Bureau of Water and Wastewater Treatment.

The Citistat room on the sixth floor of City Hall looks a bit like a NASA control room -- with a crescent-shaped array of desks facing giant overhead computer screens. Officials say statistical analysis performed here and in police headquarters has helped to drive down the number of city crimes by 15 percent over two years and save about $25 million through reduced waste and overtime.

But the Citistat room is also a high-tech torture chamber for department heads who must face relentless grilling about the most minute details of their jobs from the mayor and his right-hand man, Michael Enright.

"You get up there at the podium and take your lumps," said Jay Sakai, since February the acting director of the bureau of water. "But it works both ways, because you are communicating to the real decision-makers in the city about problems they can solve for you."

One unusual element of the Citistat management system is the undercover inspector who drives around after meetings --sometimes wearing disguises and carrying night-vision goggles -- to snap digital photos and make sure city employees aren't lying about information they gave the mayor. The inspector, as well as the mayor and others, make anonymous calls to city departments to see how responsive they are to complaints from the public. The investigator asked that his identity be kept secret, because of the covert nature of his job.

"What gets watched, gets done," said Enright, the mayor's chief of staff. "I don't think checking up on people or making a cold call once in a while is overbearing or Big Brotherly."

The meetings aren't just a cattle prod to the backside of bureaucracy. The mayor also uses conclusions from the sessions to hand out personal thank-you notes, cash rewards, baseball tickets and promotions to those who do well in the program.

The Citistat program works like this: Every two weeks, each department head must bring computerized data about his agency's performance before the mayor, chief of staff, the city finance director, solicitor and a team of analysts.

As the mayor examines the information on maps or spreadsheets on the overhead screens, he and his staff pepper the agency heads with questions about progress made since the last meeting.

The eight-member Citistat team of technicians -- which answers to the mayor's office -- frequently flash on the big screens pictures of problems, such as loafing workers or graffiti-marred buildings. Then the mayor and his staff ask for explanations.

The extra focus on numbers by O'Malley can make life painful for his directors, although most have said that they have adjusted.

"At first, it was frustrating. You'd develop numbers, then they'd challenge the numbers; you'd defend them, and they'd challenge that," said public works Director George L. Winfield. "But we've learned it's a great tool for accountability and productivity."

The firing of the parks chief this month wasn't just because of Citistat data analysis, O'Malley said, noting that he also was irritated by seeing trash and weeds in city parks and hearing complaints from city residents.

Tension built during Citistat meetings about the parks department, however, when Billups and his staff failed to produce numbers and estimates. The mayor became so exasperated that his staff canceled the April and May meetings.

"Parks and Rec never got past square one -- accurate and timely information," O'Malley said. "I was unwilling to be patient to make the changes necessary to improve the parks."

The mayor replaced Billups -- who was sworn into office in November 2000 -- with Kimberly M. Amprey, a 30-year-old Citistat analyst hired to crunch numbers about park services.

"This whole culture of measuring what you do, that hadn't been done in city government before," said Amprey. "We would ask [parks officials] how long it would take to mow a certain number of acres with the number of people they had, and they couldn't produce numbers or goals."

The typical back-and-forth of a Citistat meeting unfolded Friday.

After scrolling through computerized pie charts showing data about recycling and disciplinary actions against employees, Enright flashed a picture on the overhead projector of an overflowing trash barrel on a city street corner.

"How do we stay on top of this? ... It's just so frustrating," Enright told several solid-waste officials.

O'Malley picked up a phone and connected it to the room's speaker system, so everyone could hear what he was saying. He dialed 311, the city's line for nonemergency service requests.

When the operator answered, he identified himself as "Martin Smith." He was then put on hold, triggering giggles from the room full of city administrators. About 30 seconds later, the operator asked what the problem was. "I have a complaint ... An overflowing trash barrel at Mount Royal and North Avenues. How often is that cleaned up?"

The woman replied: "We usually try to take care of requests within 24 hours."

"Hey, thank you," O'Malley said. "Tell the mayor he's doing a great job."

About an hour after the meeting, a Citistat inspector drove out to check on the mayor's complaint. In his car were cameras, binoculars and costumes, including a floppy green fishing hat with corks dangling from it, which he said he wears so city employees won't recognize him.

The inspector found that the trash barrel had already been emptied.

But as a test, he placed at the bottom of the can a white piece of paper with the words "Martin O'Malley. Day One" written on it. He said he would return to see how long it took city workers to empty the trash again.

"Ninety-eight percent of city workers are productive," said the inspector. "But there is always the other 2 percent we have to watch for."

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