Trust in some levels of government is at an all-time low, but if leaders are more open and transparent, and make more data-driven decisions, they can regain public confidence.
That's according to former Maryland Gov. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, whose new book, "Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age," recalls his efforts to use mapping with geographic information system (GIS) to set targets, find problems and monitor progress for government employees.
And as cities become more reliant on technology, O'Malley argued it is no longer possible for leaders to not be transparent.
"In the information age, when everybody knows things at the same time as the leader, the place for the situational advantage for the leader is not at the top of that pyramid of command and control," O'Malley told Smart Cities Dive in a recent interview. "It's at the center of the collaborative circle, as close to the latest emerging truth as possible."
O'Malley said in the book he learned of this data-driven approach to government while a member of the Baltimore City Council, and looked in "awe and envy" at the New York Police Department's (NYPD) CompStat initiative using GIS to identify and help reduce spikes in crime in specific areas.
"I do believe this smarter way of governing is at the heart of the rise of smart cities."
Former Maryland Governor, Baltimore Mayor
And while some, including University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, have questioned whether CompStat was really as important in crime reduction as other factors like training more police officers and the controversial "zero tolerance" policy under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, O'Malley said it represented a new way of thinking.
When he became mayor in 1999, O'Malley wrote in the book that Baltimore was the "most violent, addicted and abandoned city in America," but he wanted to use GIS to turn things around.
Baltimore started by launching its version of CompStat called CitiStat to drive down crime, then it evolved to address other issues in the city by using real-time information to find and solve problems.
CitiStat helped close notorious open-air drug markets and contributed to the city achieving the biggest reduction in crime of any major city in America from 2000 to 2009. By using GIS mapping technology, police commanders identified spikes in crime and looked to address those spikes by upping enforcement in those areas.
Police department heads would sit in regular meetings to analyze spikes in crime and talk about what could be done to get them under control. It was effective. When he ran for Maryland Governor in 2006, the Baltimore Sun endorsed O'Malley citing a reduction in the number of murders and violent crimes in the city, while acknowledging there was plenty of work still to do.
The expanded approach included reporting and fixing of potholes and reducing the amount of lead in housing. It made use of the 311 resident-reporting system — now commonplace in many cities — while the city's departmental leaders rotated through a meeting with O'Malley, key advisors and CitiStat staff to discuss the data and what steps they were taking to have more positive outcomes.
"The ability to use GIS to combine what had been separate silos of information in government into one common operating platform and picture, it gives us the ability to get inside the turning radius of problems," O'Malley said. That GIS platform was already licensed to the city's Department of Public Works from mapping company Esri for use in development and planning; CitiStat took it to every other department.
It took time to get government workers onboard, however, as some felt they were under greater scrutiny and becoming overly reliant on technology. O'Malley said it also served as an incentive for other city officials to up their performance in hitting their targets.
"People from afar think it's a method or a system that enables you to fire bad employees," he said. "Yes, sure, that's part of management. But really, the potential that it unlocks is the potential that comes and the energy that comes from lifting up the leaders in the eyes of their colleagues and peers."
The approach has its critics. In the book, O'Malley said people had concerns the data-driven policing approach would "run roughshod over individual freedoms and constitutional rights," and came under fire from some quarters for embracing a zero-tolerance policing strategy that targeted minority communities.
CompStat remains controversial in New York City to this day, partly because it was used in conjunction with the NYPD's stop and frisk program, which mostly targeted minority communities. In 2017, the city paid $75 million to settle a lawsuit that argued NYPD had issued more than 900,000 unlawful criminal summonses.
Baltimore has come under significant fire for police brutality, which culminated in a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found a "pattern of civil rights violations." In a statement at the time, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the city "engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct, ranging from the use of excessive force to unjustified stops, seizures and arrests."
In an article for MSNBC, Tina Sacks, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at University of California-Berkeley, said a data-driven approach asks the "wrong questions," and there should be more focus on systemic changes to city life.
"While CompStat and its look-alike programs may have been well intended, we must not confuse measurement with deep understanding, thorough interpretation, or careful intervention," Sacks wrote.
The trend of performance management appears to be catching on, although it has taken time for some to adopt a similar approach and Baltimore stepped away from the program due to shifting priorities and budget cuts. At the end of 2019 Seattle launched a centralized dashboard called "Performance Seattle" to track priority areas including the city's affordability and livability, response to homelessness, work on climate change and basic city services.
O'Malley said that commitment to transparency by elected leaders would have been decried by political advisors in years past, but he said it has become standard operating procedure and a way to make cities run smarter.
"I do believe this smarter way of governing is at the heart of the rise of smart cities," O'Malley said. "Sometimes we get all wrapped around the axle by the whiz-bang latest technology… Yes, all of that's great and it's fascinating. But really, at the core, at the heart of things, it's really about trust and in a democracy, trust is everything."