Strength In Numbers: Building a Stat Coalition In The MidAtlantic

January 28, 2015 6:03 am PST | Data as a Service

For years David Gottesman was frustrated running his Long Island town’s stat office. It’s not that performance management wasn’t working for his town, it was. But there weren’t any neighboring governments using data-driven decision making. 

Gottesman knew that  sharing best practices, challenges, and successes of performance measurement would be of huge benefit to his town’s stat practice and those of other smaller municipalities. “But I didn’t have a network to talk about any of that,” he recalled on a phone interview with Socrata.

So when Gottesman began working for Montgomery County, Maryland and found there were numerous nearby local governments with stat offices, he wanted to pull them together into such a network. He first reached out to Greg Useem in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia and Bill Yake from Fairfax County, VA to get a group started. Both also recognized the benefits, so the trio started recruiting others to create MidAtlantic StatNet.

“We aren’t doing something completely unheard of,” Useem says. “There are other StatNet groups in Florida, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, among others. But what does makes MidAtlantic StatNet unique is that its run by local governments. In all other cases, universities or the state government have set up and run these groups.”

Perhaps because MidAtlantic StatNet is self-organized, it had a great deal of buy-in from the onset. When Gottesman and Useem started asking who else in the region was using performance management methods and could benefit from peer learning, they had dozens of municipalities raise their proverbial hands.

Numerous jurisdictions from southern Pennsylvania to Richmond, Virginia attended MidAtlantic StatNet’s first meeting. Representatives from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other federal agencies also dropped in to learn more about performance management and network with their peers.

“Although our group is still in its infancy, everyone has been so generous with their time,” says Gottesman. MidAtlantic StatNet meetings have included speakers such as Mike Flowers and Governor Martin O’Malley.

MidAtlantic StatNet is planning a phased approach to building out its programming. The first stage of which, scheduling regular meetings, is already well underway with the group getting together face-to-face twice a year.

Next Useem, Gottesman, and company are benchmarking selected services offered by all the group’s participating governments. For example, at  its last meeting, MidAtlantic StatNet compared their respective inspectional service data. From there, the group plans to model key services and indicators, deep diving on those with service providers and, eventually, collect data on a regional scale.

Gottesman says the MidAtlantic StatNet is currently “trying to establish benchmarks against each other on a specific issues like fire department deployment times and permitting.” 

“We want to know why one city is better at delivering a service than another,” Useem adds. “If there is a fantastic strategy to deal with a problem we all have, shouldn’t other municipalities be considering it?”

Comparing performance hasn’t been all that easy, however. One of the biggest obstacles Useem and Gottesman say is not having standardized data. So, MidAtlantic StatNet is working through datasets service-by-service and definition-by-definition to get a clearer picture of what everyone is tracking and how the region is performing on the whole.

“Cleaning data to get things more comparable is a worthwhile effort for sure,” admits Useem. “But no matter what we do (if we are being be fair about) it that data is never going to be 100% perfect and we will never have completely comparable data because of internal and external factors. The key is to get to the place where we feel comfortable enough with the standards to then learn best practices from one another.”

The benchmarking process has been made easier by Socrata, according to Gottesman. He say the company is building MidAtlantic StatNet a tool which will display all the jurisdictions’ data side-by-side, allowing for more easy comparisons.

Overall, the goal is to get to the point where they can address regional issues from a stat perspective. “That will be good for our governments and for our residents,” Useem asserts.  

Useem says the MidAtlantic is unique because municipalities and counties are very interdependent on one another, which is why local councils are so interested in comparing performance to their neighbors’. That leadership has been critical, he adds,  to launching and sustaining performance management across the region.

For other regions thinking of starting their own StatNet-style group, Useem and Gottesman have some advice. Although they note that their government-led organization may be more limited in its administrative scope and day-to-day operations than similar groups run by academic institutions, it is getting the job done where there is little outside support.

“Our best advice to other regions looking to form a network of stat offices is just to get started,” Useem says encouragingly. “Just pick something reasonable, show some value, and then you can go onto the next thing.”

To which Gottesman adds, “We don’t have every jurisdiction in Maryland or Virginia, or even every one with performance management. But we’ve got all the ones who are interested, who want to be involved, and who are ready to jump in with us.”

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