Monday, September 15, 2008

The Wire's lost sixth season: Pothole crews

The realism of HBO's gritty series set in various Baltimore institutions is often debated. One nuance that didn't miss the producers of The Wire: the intense biweekly CitiStat meetings in which a city department head is in the hotseat as the mayor and his staff comb through reams of departmental performance data. (See episodes three and ten of season three for scenes set in internal police department stats meetings.)

CitiStat is a city management system consisting of biweekly meetings of the mayor and his stats team with agency and department heads. These meetings focus on a department's weekly performance on a set of metrics aimed at measuring timeliness and quality of service to citizens. Performance is tracked over time and drives policy and budgetary decisions.

To illustrate: Suppose Baltimore had a horrible winter that wreaked havoc on local roads and resulted in numerous potholes. (Sound familiar?) The CitiStat team would be on top of it. Each week the department head reports to the team how many complaints about potholes were received (the city has a non-emergency service request 3-1-1 phone number), how many of those particular holes were fixed within 48 hours, how many total potholes were filled, how many crew members worked, and how many crew-days were worked. The information is reported by sector of the city, so that if particular neighborhoods get better service than others, it can be fixed before becoming a scandal.

Since the city has been tracking this data since 2002, they also know whether these figures are above or below average for that week of the year, allowing them to adjust their budgeted figures for pothole filling as the year goes on. (Personnel data is also many employees were absent, how many worked overtime, etc.)

Now imagine this type of data being available and used to drive decisionmaking for every city service, including public safety. In Baltimore it has resulted in cost savings varying from energy savings due to more efficient lighting patterns to more stray animal adoptions to more miles of street sweeping and graffiti removal per year.

The tenets of the CitiStat process are four-fold:

-Accurate and timely intelligence shared by all,
-Rapid deployment of resources,
-Effective tactics and strategies, and
-Relentless follow-up and assessment.

Other cities that have adopted the data-based management system include Providence, RI; Buffalo, NY; Atlanta, GA; and Somerville, MA. Not all have found as much success as Baltimore. The system has been around long enough now that there is research to tell us how and why some cities have succeeded and others have not. The seven most important factors include:

1. Having a clear purpose--It's not enough just to collect data; there must be a specific result in mind. Eliminating potholes, for example. A general "safer streets" goal might not be enough. In addition, it's tempting to measure things just because you can and its fun to go data mining in pursuit of interesting nuggets. But the goals should drive the data collection, not vice versa, and all measurement should be done with the purpose in mind.

2. Ensuring someone takes responsibility for achieving the purpose--Is there just one person in charge of safer streets? Probably not. It's much more likely that someone's neck is on the line when it comes to potholes.

3. Meeting regularly and frequently with the stat team--If data are collected on a daily basis, then progress should be reviewed frequently enough (biweekly, for example) that problems can be headed-off or progress can be praised.

4. Running meetings with authority--Since it's unlikely a mayor can devote the time to running every meeting, authority must rest with whomever does run the meetings, so that deficiencies, if found, can be followed up on. Consistency is also important so that over time, the leader of the meeting has a feel for the depth of the problems, the growth of the progress, or the appropriateness of the goals.

5. Having a dedicated analytical staff--Every local government is capable of producing data in spades...making meaning of that data is what's most time- and resource- consuming. For a CitiStat program to work, there must be a stat team to analyze data full-time.

6. Relentlessly following-up--Department heads must ensure that their staff is prepared for each meeting, understands the purpose, has a game plan for getting results, and has made improvements since the last meeting.

7. Understanding constant conflict is not productive, nor is coddling--Baltimore's CitiStat meetings have a reputation of being brutal and combative games of "gotcha." Somerville takes a different tactic by providing department heads with an agenda the day before, so they can come prepared with explanations or solutions. Meetings should not be punitive, but should not be mere show-and-tell exercises, either.

It must be noted, however, that there is a real risk when using a data-driven management system such as CitiStat to make policy decisions: forgetting that numbers don't always tell the real story. In fact, one episode of The Wire illustrates this risk beautifully: When one police commander allows unhampered drug trading on one street, the number of felony incidents in the neighborhood drops dramatically. The resulting "mini Amsterdam" is seen as illegal, insane, and yet brilliant--a 14% reduction in major crime almost overnight. To a commander under intense pressure to improve the stats, the ends justify the means.

For policy wonks or civil servants, a CitiStat season of The Wire, showing heads rolling while hot asphalt is steaming, would have been must-see TV.

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