We may live in the era of big data and enhanced applications, but the City of Baltimore is still buying filing cabinets and shuffling paper. Our city government lumbers along, struggling with both complex urban problems, like vacant properties, and small problems, like issuing permits. It does neither well for small businesses or residents, and we must do better to realize our true potential.
This year will be forever remembered as one of the most chaotic in our city's storied history. The polarized conversation about the root cause of the unrest that boiled over on April 27th will continue for decades and be studied by academia and social scientists for years to come. Residents across Baltimore have plenty of differing opinions about how we arrived at this point, but there is one thing that on which most agree: As a city, we were not prepared.
At its core, government's mission is to make sure that it provides the most effective and efficient services for residents, businesses and communities. To do so requires constant attention to best practices, new technologies and, most importantly, a sense of urgency.
City government's failure to evolve and modernize is readily apparent. In just the last few years, there have been stark examples: the slow motion debacle to upgrade its antiquated phone system, the inadequate Department of Finance printer that crippled residential home sales for a week, and the lack of user-friendly interfaces to city services.
These failures represent millions of wasted dollars, missed opportunities and consistent delivery of substandard results. Frustrating the situation further is the availability of a bounty of more affordable, more versatile, and overall better options.
I know because I am an electrical engineer who builds information management systems for big telecommunication companies for a living. I make connections between people and information, and I understand what the storage cloud and the rapidly expanding ability to collect and exploit data could mean to Baltimore.
Certainly more data and faster computers can mean better city services at all levels. But it can mean much more than that. Imagine a city in which every resident has the same information as the mayor. Imagine being able to participate directly not only in the big decisions, like the city budget, but in the thousands of smaller decisions that cities make every day, like which properties to raze. Baltimore could be run in an open and collaborative way, where every resident not only has a vote, but also has a voice and the tools to improve and change the communities where they live and work.
Consider New Orleans: The city rehabbed or demolished over 10,000 derelict houses in three years through a program called BlightStat. New Orleans centralized decision-making, streamlined the seizure of properties, and set-up funds to help owners get buildings back into compliance. But, most importantly, it opened up the process, so residents could report, track and help intervene with derelict properties. New Orleans is now a national leader in managing blight.
A bit of recent history here: BlightStat, believe it or not, originated here in Baltimore. Fifteen years ago then Mayor Martin O'Malley started an innovative program called CitiStat, following a straightforward methodology: Collect, share and track information; make timely decisions based on proven results; and enforce accountability from city agency heads through an open process.
If imitation is the best measure of success, CitiStat was a huge success. It went national, and now CitiStat is being used by cities all over the United States, including New Orleans where they started BlightStat. CitiStat won the prestigious Harvard Innovation in Government Award and is used in course work as a shining example at the Kennedy School of Government.
While CitiStat spread throughout the nation, it was allowed to languish here in Baltimore. It went years without a qualified leader. The number of accountability sessions dropped precipitously, and City Hall stopped making them a priority. The program fell behind new technological developments, went without a director for long periods, and lost its most important aspect: its teeth.
After years of neglect, what is truly required is bigger vision and renewed commitment by the city to leverage data, hold agency heads accountable and drive results. Managing for results through CitiStat will not only improve city services, it will save precious taxpayer dollars at the same time.
The city could also save millions of dollars by modernizing the management of the largest capital construction projects. This work should be centralized into one shop, staffed by certified professional project managers with deep experience in project risk management, construction deliverables and budgeting. This would mean better accountability from contractors, and it would allow the city departments to focus on delivering services for residents. Whether road and infrastructure projects, recreational center construction, or demolition of vacant housing to make way for future economic development, the city must develop a solution that incorporates certified project management professionals to maximize every dollar, reduce cost overruns and improve outcomes.
Agile use of data and evidence can bring big changes for the good. Using data as a tool to understand our city's challenges and opportunities means we can afford to set aside politics and invest in what works. We can calmly and deliberately begin to solve the seemingly intractable problems plaguing our Baltimore for decades. We can attack the very roots of intergenerational poverty and actually succeed. Drug addiction, childhood hunger, joblessness and violence are all products of poor policy, and we can fix that.
Getting CitiStat back up and running is a good first step. But we can do even more.
Imagine a city government that does more than fill potholes but instead, through direct collaboration with its residents, builds a community in which every member participates in decision making, where problems big and small get resolved, and everyone can equally pursue their dreams. The technology exists to make this a reality in Baltimore, what we need now is the political will.
Nick Mosby, a Democrat, represents District 7 on the Baltimore City Council; his email is Nick.Mosby@baltimorecity.gov.