Bruce Nye: CitiStat is The Best Thing That Could Happen to Government Accountability in Oakland. But Not Now.

Bruce Nye is Board Chair of Make Oakland Better Now! The opinions in this post, however, are his, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the organization.

So, has everybody seen dramatizations of police department CompStat meetings on “The Wire” and other cop drama shows? These make for great television. A bunch of high-level police department officials get together in a room. The police commissioner or chief grills some poor division commander who stands alone at a podium sweating and trying to answer questions about his division’s inadequacies, while everybody else watches him squirm.

CompStat was invented in New York City, and in real life, it’s a process by which crime statistics are collected, computerized, mapped and disseminated quickly. Officers are held responsible for the crime in their areas. There’s more about CompStat here and lots of other places on the internet, and since you read A Better Oakland, this is probably all old news to you.

Then, there is CitiStat, the non-law enforcement version of CompStat used to hold city department management responsible for providing city services and for managing their departments. The most well-known version of CitiStat was developed in Baltimore (the same city that brought you The Wire) ten years ago. Baltimore has what Oakland city staff has repeatedly described as the “gold standard” for CitiStat programs.

In 2000, Baltimore took the CompStat model and turned it into a way to track performance of non-law enforcement city services. The mayor promised that potholes would be fixed in 48 hours and that they’d track responses to other city service requests.

To do this, they have day and night 311 system fielding all of the city’s non-emergency service calls. They have a software package designed for Baltimore by Motorola (and now available off the shelf) that issues service ticket numbers, tracks every call, tracks resolutions and, most importantly, generates performance data.

Baltimore has bi-weekly CompStat-style meetings for every program under CitiStat review, in a dedicated CitiStat room, where the chair of the meeting grills department heads and managers whose programs aren’t meeting performance standards. He or she also exacts commitments for improvement, and brings department heads and managers back to report on progress. Meetings can be chaired by the mayor, or, more likely, by a deputy mayor who has full authority from the mayor to obtain compliance. To make sure directors and managers are telling the truth about their compliance, the mayor’s office sends staff out with cameras on a regular basis to look for potholes not repaired, graffiti not removed, trees not trimmed, etc.

CitiStat Meeting

Doesn’t that sound great? Doesn’t that sound like exactly what Oakland needs to hold department heads accountable? Can you imagine living in a city where the mayor regularly meets with city department heads and mayors, and measures performance based on real, meaningful data? And where residents get city services by calling a 311 line instead of by hounding city council staffers? It sounds like a pretty terrific accountability measure to me.

Well, an Oakland version — dubbed “OakStat — was recommended in the famous Robert Bobb/PFM Group report (PDF) in January of last year. Since that time, the City Administrator’s office has submitted a number of reports on the subject to council’s Finance & Management Committee, which you can see here (PDF), here (PDF), here (PDF), and here (PDF).

Earlier this month, Marc Broady, a staffer from the Maltimore Mayor’s office came to Finance & Management to put on his Power Point presentation about CitiStat, and everybody in attendance was pretty well blow away. Here’s the presentation:

As at many council meetings, it was a little bit hard to discern exactly what the committee decided when they voted (I watched that part of the meeting twice, and I’m still not sure), but it was something like “have staff put together a task force to figure out a way to implement this as to public works and public safety and get it all done by this summer, or right after Labor Day at the latest, and do it with existing resource.s And report back to council. And this will save us lots of money.”

Well, I’m sorry, but WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Council should take a hard look at a terrific fifty page report (PDF) by Robert D. Behn, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “What All Mayors Would Like To Know About Baltimore’s Performance Strategy.” Staff gave council members the introductory pages, but they really need to see the entire thing. If they do, they will learn the following:

Q: What exactly is CitiStat?

A: A leadership strategy!

Citistat is a leadership strategy that a mayor can employ to mobilize city agencies to produce specific results…CitiStat is more than meetings and data. It requires:

  • Targets (which provide benchmarks for judging successes and failure)
  • Tactics (which focus organizational efforts on achieving the targets)
  • Data (which track the performance of agencies and subunits)
  • Analysis (which, using the data, identifies the causes of both success and failure)
  • Questions (which reveal what agencies are doing and not doing to achieve their targets)
  • Learning (which come from these analyses, questions, and answers)
  • Collaboration (which help the mayor’s staff and the agency’s director and managers to determine what to do next)
  • Experimentation (which creates new ways of achieving success)
  • Meetings (which regularly review agency progress, targets, analyses, and strategies)
  • Thinking (which can suggest how the entire approach can be improved)

If a mayor and his leadership team are doing these things consciously, persistently, imaginatively, and skillfully, they are undoubtedly doing somethinat that — even if it does not have the outward appearance of Baltimore’s CitiStat — accomplishes the CitiStat’s purpose: to improve the performance of city government.

Q: What kind of commitment does CitiStat require?

A: A real, serious commitment.

No mayor should initiate the creation of CitiStat without fully recognizing the implications of the undertaking. After all, most city employees and many managers of city agencies will quickly interpret it as another management fad. They’ve seen it all: management by objectives and total quality management, zero-based budgeting and performance-based budgeting, the balanced scorecard and the organizations dashboards. They aren’t going to get too excited about the mayor’s latest little brainstorm (or brief mental shower). From experience, they have determined how best to cope with the latest mayor’s random neuron firings. Why bother, they have learned, when this will soon disappear, to be replaced by another mayoral impulse? Thus, a mayor who wishes to establish CitiStat not only needs to make a real commitment; he or she also needs to dramatize this commitment.

Q: Should the CitiStat office be part of the budget department?

A: No.

Baltimore emphasizes that if CitiStat is run out of a city’s budget office, the sole measure of concern will quickly become dollars saved. The budget office has one set of purposes: to create the mayor’s annual budget proposal; to ensure that the city’s expenditures are consistent with its sources of revenue; to ensure that all funds are spent exactly as appropriated; to ensure that the city does not overspend its budget. For a city budget office, spending less is always good. The budget office would, inevitably, want to get the same bang for fewer bucks. The budget office might even be happier with a smaller bang for fewer bucks.

In contrast, the CitiStat office has a different set of purposes. Primarily, the CitiStat office wants to improve the results produced by city agencies.

Q: What is the role of the members of the city council?

A: Not much.

In other words, and as Baltimore’s Broady pointed out at the committee meeting, CitiStat isn’t a software program or a reorganization; it is, instead, a leadership strategy and an entire new way of looking at data. And as Vice-President Biden mught put it, this is a big deal.

What staff is working on now is an incremental start called “CleanStat” (for Public Works and Parks and Rec) and “SafetyStat” (for police and fire). And from council members’ comments at Finance & Management, it is clear they are looking at this as a way to save lots of money. Furthermore, directly contracy to the Baltimore recommendations, OakStat reports will go to Council, and the process will be staffed with Budget Office analysts.

There is nothing wrong with incrementalism, particularly in these tough economic times. And I’m certainly in favor of saving money (Baltimore claims to have saved $350 million through CitiStat in ten years). But this isn’t what CitiStat is about.

CitiStat is a strategy to lead city departments to improve their performance by obtaining, tracking and working with performance data, by demonstrating a commitment to accountability that show directors and managers they either have to get with the program or get out, and by having the mayor demonstrate every day that the city means business. Baltimore’s CitiStat calendar for January 2010 shows 19 CitiStat meetings in the dedicated CitiStat room. Oakland is looking at one meeting a month run by the City Administrator in a city conference room.

Oakland may have only one opportunity to do this right; a failed CitiStat program will ensure that the process is looked at as just another management fad. CitiStat can work under the leadership of a strong mayor in a strong mayor form of government. That obviously won’t happen with the current mayor. The best hope for having a CitiStat program that brings accountability and performance improvement to Oakland is for a truly strong mayor to implement it, and to make sure everybody knows that CitiStat is the most important management initiative in the mayor’s office. Until that happens, council should put this one on hold.

(Thanks to Baltimore’s Marc Broady for sending the Power Point slides.)

Watch the full video of the Committee’s CitiStat discussion below:

12 thoughts on “Bruce Nye: CitiStat is The Best Thing That Could Happen to Government Accountability in Oakland. But Not Now.

  1. oakie

    i propose a new official motto for Oakland:

    Just like Baltimore, but with better weather.

    Anyone who believes this city will operate more efficiently with some magic pill like this ought to have their head examined. Unless, of course, each employee’s compensation will be determined based on their actual performance. By this method, I believe Mayor Sleepy owes us a whole bunch of dough.

  2. Andy K

    Yeah, this clearly won’t work with the current mayor. We desperately need someone who can lead.

  3. MarleenLee

    This sounds like a gimmick. The only people likely to benefit are the software developers who sell this thing, and it probably costs a pretty penny. The program might be beneficial to an organization that actually CARED about leadership, accountability, efficiency etc. But these people just DON’T. If they expressed even the remotest interest in adopting such a program, it would only be so they could claim “oh, we care about productivity, efficiency, blah blah blah – see? We bought this program!” Yeah, right!

  4. Max Allstadt

    I think that there’s a whopping amount of good that can be done with technology, but this might not be the right technology.

    Open source and even free public web technologies could be put into play in a number of circumstances to radically enhance what the city can do.

    Unfortunately, this takes vision and flexibility. This city needs a CTO or “technology czar” who’s got a lot of experience implementing new tech in a large organization.

    This is not the same as our current director of IT. We need someone who’s a Mayoral aide who’s sole task is finding technological solutions. They aren’t keeping the system running. They’re deciding what to add and subtract from the system. And that person needs to be empowered to decree that things be done.

    GPS in all city vehicles? Sure. But how? And what do we do with the data?

    Planning in 3D?

    Crowdsourced blight fighting, using geotagged and dated photos?

    CompStat? CityStat? Open Source Equivalents?

    And, as Marleen points out, every time we buy a new toy, somebody has to evaluate if the bureaucracy can be set up so that staffers, leaders, neighbors, cops, or whoever is receiving it… uses it.

  5. Robert

    Process improvements such as this depend for success on two things, leadership and accountability. If you have those, the exact system doesn’t matter too much, and in the absence of those two factors, all systems will fail. Leadership means that management at all levels, the mayor, administrator and all the department heads and managers need to buy in to process improvement as an important goal, and accountability means quite simply that everyone on the city staff needs to be held accountable for results. Raises need to depend on improvements, and termination needs to be a possible consequence of not improving.

    If you have those factors, very simple data management such as tracking in Excel can lead to meaningful improvements in performance. While a database driven system is nice, it is hardly necessary to start making improvements.

  6. V Smoothe

    Did people read the post? CitiStat isn’t software, it’s a method of approaching resource and performance management that has shown stunning results nationwide. Some of these comments seem to be missing the concept in much the same way the Committee members did.

  7. MarleenLee

    Okay, so it’s not a specific software program, but it requires the City to buy software. According to this site http://economyleague.org/node/183 the software costs around $20,000. Plus, Baltimore had to spend nearly $300,000 the first year for “staffers and space.” No mention of how much in cost in subsequent years. The program could, and obviously has worked well in some cities. But as indicated in the post, it requires a dedication and commitment to improving productivity, efficiency, accountability etc. that I think is currently totally lacking.

  8. Chris

    Since we’re talking about B-more and the Wire, a couple of stories from the Wire. First, the whole show is essentially about juking the stats, taking whatever statistics there are and making them look better, for crime, for education, for anything. So to echo everyone’s point, without real leadership who understand the stats and what they mean, a new system doesn’t provide much hope.
    And just for fun, one of my favorite Wire scenes. The newly elected mayor storms into a public works department and says something like “I visited that school this morning and there was nothing but trash in front of it. I looked like a jerk to the parents. Go clean up that school right now.” and storms out with saying something useful, like the name of the school. He does the same thing with 4 other departments, leaky hydrants, abandoned cars, major potholes, etc.. The idea being without specific information, they would have to clean up every possible school, hydrant, car, pothole. It’s a great scene.

  9. livegreen

    In Oakland, the intersection between Public Works & Schools is safety near schools after a girl was victim to a hit & run near Frick Middle School (if my recollection is correct).

    Traffic Engineering in PW is in an interesting position because while they’re supposed to be doing this their budget is being cut by the City Counsel, & they have a somewhat pro-auto tradition, remaining from the 50′s-70′s. At the same time if they do nothing the City opens itself to a greater chance at getting sued (much less having other kids become victims).

    It would be nice to see them become a little more school, pedestrian & bike friendly, and the City Counsel maintain their operations budget (even if they decide to a moderate reduction in salaries/benefits)…

  10. Dawn Norman

    Mr Nye,
    What’s the word on CitiStat? We too have a desperate need for such a leadership plan in our town (Huntington, WV). I’m trying to research who is actually using such models — I think it is a great idea, but the mayor & council have to be 100% committed to it.

    D Norman