Beth Blauer Gut Decisions are Expensive and Dangerous

Why all governments must embrace data-driven decision making

By Beth Blauer, Socrata Director of GovStat


Our lives are increasingly shaped by the ubiquity of data at our fingertips. As consumers, we routinely rely on this wealth of information to inform our decisions—from comparing the latest tech gadgets to determining whether or not the new restaurant down the street is worth trying.

Easier access to data continues to power innovation and efficiency among businesses, and we as consumers reap the rewards. Yet, government has largely lagged behind this movement. In a time of unprecedented digital openness, many government organizations keep data locked up in proprietary databases, or published in cumbersome formats that make analysis and collaborative problem-solving extremely difficult.

In the past, these realities have prevented public entities from more effectively using an asset they have in abundance—the treasure troves of information stored in databases, spreadsheets, and other tools—that so rarely sees the light of day. Liberating non-personal public data on crime rates, school performance, infrastructure projects, and much more, creates enormous opportunities for government to positively impact the lives of citizens. It also empowers agencies to track their own success against stated goals and identify areas for improvement.

Gut Decisions Get in the Way of Good Governance

Despite the potential to use readily available information to increase citizen engagement, save money, and boost program performance, many public entities still base decisions largely on instinct. Beyond contributing to inefficient processes and shortsighted policies, “gut” decision making is costly—even dangerous. This model inevitably results in:

  • Slow delivery of government services
  • Misalignment between public services and citizen needs
  • Difficulty in tying investments to measurable results
  • Lower levels of transparency and accountability
  • Public perception that government is broken

In 2013 and beyond, the central question that every government leader needs to ask is: “How much longer can I afford to not adopt a data-driven approach to decision making?”

The Results-Driven Revolution is Gaining Momentum

A new era of data-powered government and civic innovation is taking shape. This movement, which is still rapidly gathering momentum, provides only a hint of what is possible in the future. It’s not a matter of if data-driven government can create the best solutions to society’s problems; it’s a matter of how soon governments will embrace the idea and reap the benefits.

Amazing success stories of the use of data science to solve civic problems are emerging every day. The examples set by pioneers like New York City, Baltimore, and the state of Maryland are encouraging organizations at every level of government in every region across the U.S. to use data and analytics to create better-informed policies.

“In 2013 and beyond, the central question that every government leader needs to ask is: ‘How much longer can I afford to not adopt a data-driven approach to decision making?’”

Beth Blauer, Socrata Director of GovStat

The Evolution of Public Performance Measurement in Maryland

StateStat, Maryland’s acclaimed government performance management initiative actually has its roots in the CompStat program implemented in New York City in the mid-1990s. The CompStat team in NYC had cross-referenced crime maps with police department resource maps and uncovered a glaring disparity–crime-fighting resources were evenly distributed, but crime wasn’t.

By being smarter about dispatching departmental resources, the city’s leadership was able to clean up the city significantly. And when crime disappears, something else moves in – in New York City’s case it was industry, business, tourism, and more vibrant neighborhoods. The data-driven approach proved powerful.

After Martin O’Malley was elected Mayor of Baltimore in 1999, he made it his number one priority to launch a statistics-oriented approach to governance similar to CompStat. By the summer of 2000, CitiStat, Baltimore’s version of the CompStat program was born and quickly became a game changer. The shift to a data-driven approach not only impacted crime, but it provided a data-based decision making platform for all city agencies. It gave birth to services that benefited citizens, like 311 and a 48-hour pothole guarantee.

When Baltimore’s Mayor O’Malley became Maryland’s Governor O’Malley in 2006, it was clear that CitiStat would be rolled out statewide. After his election, he named me Chief of Staff of the Department of Juvenile Services. Then, based upon my work in the juvenile justice system (and my tendency to disregard status quo and naysayers), Governor O’Malley invited me to be the Director of StateStat.

In my following five years heading up the program, I was able to play a key role in a fundamental change in the way the Maryland State government operated. The goal from the beginning was that decisions would be driven by data – and innovation was welcome.

We focused initially on the larger agencies within the state government. Governor O’Malley was ambitious and bold with his vision for Maryland. His goal included an end to childhood hunger by 2015, a 20 percent decrease in crime statewide by 2018, and to get Chesapeake Bay to the “Healthy Bay Tipping Point” by 2025. He knew from his experience with CitiStat that data from multiple agencies would be essential to solving these complicated issues. He purposefully pulled together people from different departments, and their data, to find solutions.

StateStat’s Staggering Success

All told, StateStat’s success was nothing short of staggering. In its first three years, the state saved $20 million in overtime in our public safety agency alone. Savings were created by consolidating our print shops and state car fleets, and reducing duplication in projects.

O’Malley made good on his commitment to reduced crime. Violent crimes in the state decreased by 25 percent between 2007 and 2012. In fact, homicides were down 27 percent in 2011 compared to 2006. The city of Baltimore also saw a historic reduction in crime.

In addition, the O’Malley administration managed a massive $8.3 billion in spending cuts in its first seven years while recovering 81 percent of jobs lost during the recession – that’s the eighth fastest rate in the nation. Meanwhile, O’Malley’s team helped to expand healthcare coverage to more than 360,000 residents, most of them children.

In 2012, Maryland had the 15 lowest foreclosure rate in the nation, 87 percent of high school seniors graduated from high school, and 56 percent more students took Advanced Placement exams in science, technology, engineering and math-related topics in 2012 than they had in 2006.

The list of achievements goes on and on.

“It’s not a matter of if data-driven government can create the best solutions to society’s problems; it’s a matter of how soon different governments will embrace the idea and reap the benefits.”

Beth Blauer, Socrata Director of GovStat

How was such widespread success possible? I believe that is was our commitment to the philosophy of governing by data. It can’t be overemphasized. The data-driven approach wasn’t a side project. The StateStat program oversaw 80 percent of all budgets and personnel in the state. Agencies checked in with StateStat monthly, if not weekly. And, StateStat was reviewed quarterly against Governor O’Malley’s 15 stated goals.

In many ways, the timing of StateStat’s beginning was ideal. Data-driven decision making is always useful. But, in the midst of the Great Recession, we absolutely had to do more with less. In order to drive efficiency and make the right decisions for citizens, we needed to understand which services were the most valuable. The answer was in the data.

Government Should Be an Innovation Leader

By adopting cutting-edge technologies, such as cloud data storage and application programming interfaces (APIs), to share their valuable data, some government agencies are not only catching up with private sector in terms of innovation, but accelerating beyond it. Data has long been recognized as a government asset, but now it can finally be shared and utilized both inside government, and among citizens, entrepreneurs, and researchers, to find solutions to persistent civic problems. The evidence is clear: governments can and should play a leading role in the data revolution.