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Wednesday, March 01, 2006 | In his efforts to clean up San Diego City Hall, Mayor Jerry Sanders has clasped onto a number of headline-grabbing tactics that he says will save the city money. Namely, the mayor requested and received signed letters of resignation from more than 200 city managers promising that he will figure out which ones he wants to keep in the coming weeks. The mayor also recently announced that he will support a ballot initiative slated for the fall of 2006 that, if adopted, will allow the city to outsource many of its services to private corporations.
While ridding city government of bureaucrats who do little more than chew pens and outsourcing city work may cut down the city’s expenditures, these two proposals barely touch on unearthing a long-term solution to San Diego’s government, which in every sense has failed, evidenced by the city’s $2 billion pension deficit.
The problem is management. Increasing direct communication between department heads, low and mid-level employees and the mayor can lead to an immediate increase in accountability within city government.
But how can this be done?
Last week I visited Baltimore, Md. for an unusual reason. I came to see one of the nation’s best examples of government in action. Baltimore, believe it or not, is at the forefront of government management because of a unique program called CitiStat.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley launched CitiStat soon after his election in 2000. Every two weeks, every department head within the city’s government appears individually behind a podium flanked by two massive computer screens and all of the department head’s top staff members.
Directly in front of the department head stands a long table, at which sits the mayor, two of his top staff members, the head of the city’s Information Technology Office, the Labor Commissioner, the city solicitor, and the city Finance Director.
Bimonthly CitiStat meetings last between 60 to 90 minutes. During the meetings, the mayor and his staff grill department heads with questions about costs, street cleaning, fire department response times, all while graphs, maps, financial records, and digital photographs appear on the computer screens providing a glimpse into departmental operations. Individual CitiStat staffers are assigned specific departments to analyze by reviewing balance sheets and going out to department facilities armed with digital cameras to take photos of sleeping police officers and barbecue grills set up in city garages.
During the CitiStat meeting I attended, featuring the head of Baltimore’s Parks and Recreation Department, First Deputy Mayor Michael Enright asked why overtime hours over the previous two week period were significantly higher than over the same period last year.
Told the hours were attributed to clean-up stemming from a recent snowstorm, Enright followed up with a question about a workers’ compensation claim made by a department employee. A Parks and Recreation staffer sitting near his boss stood and responded by saying the employee hurt his leg getting out of his truck. Enright inquired about the safety measures maintenance employees take in the hope that such injuries don’t happen often.
Imagine that, the deputy mayor of a major city asking how a maintenance employee of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department hurt his leg.
While some critics contend that CitiStat leads to mayoral micromanagement and departments spending too much time gathering data for bi-weekly meetings, numbers tell a different story.
Excessive absenteeism ended in Baltimore, which cut overtime costs. The number of illegal dumping grounds within the city declined by more than 90 percent. Crime in the city has dropped more than 30 percent since 2000 and the number of murders has dropped substantially over the same period. Through an O’Malley-initiated 311 system, which citizens call with complaints or questions relating to city services, 97 percent of potholes in the city are filled within 48 hours of a citizen reporting the pothole by calling 311.
Baltimore’s 311 system receives 3,000 calls per day.
The Mayor’s office estimates that CitiStat has saved the city more than $100 million dollars. CitiStat’s annual budget is only $450,000.
In April 2005, because of CitiStat, Time Magazine declared Mayor O’Malley one of the five best mayors in the United States in the same article that labeled former San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy one of the nation’s worst.
In 2004, CitiStat won the “Oscar” of government, the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University.
The key to CitiStat is direct communication between the mayor’s administration and department managers and relentless follow-up. If the mayor tells a manager to fix a problem, the manager has two weeks to come up with a realistic solution before the next CitiStat meeting, at which time the manager is asked if the problem is solved, and if not, why not.
Department managers face a litany of consequences for both negative and positive results, from outright dismissal to the mayor giving away tickets to Baltimore’s NFL Ravens’ games.
Because the mayor’s aides, the top department staff and other administration big-wigs are all in the CitiStat room, lame excuses or responses loaded with immeasurable platitudes are not accepted. If a department head says unions might stand in the way of a solution, the labor commissioner is at the meeting to offer an answer.
If the finances don’t add up, the city finance director is there to discuss funding. Rather than waiting several weeks or months for a flurry of memos and interoffice mail to transfer hands, problems are solved in the CitiStat room, quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. The CitiStat process turns government management on its head. Rather than measuring departmental successes merely annually when the city budget is written, all 16 departments are measured every two weeks.
CitiStat itself is a transferable program. The original idea came from the New York Police Department’s CompStat (Computerized Statistics) program that began in the early 1990s and helped dramatically reduce crime in New York by tracking crime incidents weekly, putting precinct captains directly before the department commissioner who demanded that captains deploy their officers efficiently by recognizing geographical crime trends. Like CompStat, much of CitiStat’s success comes from the use of Geographic Information Systems software, which uses satellite imagery to track all sorts of data, from the locations of uncollected garbage to dilapidated vacant city property.
There are three primary reasons the CitiStat program can work in San Diego now:
The Strong Mayor and Ronne Froman
Mayor Sanders was only recently elected and is now running a new “strong-mayor” form of government that is without precedent in the city of San Diego. Previously, the city manager ran the city. Sanders has no blueprint for running the city because no San Diego mayor has ever been able to run the city.
For years, mayors were stuck in city council meetings and they served as the ceremonial head of the city. Now that Sanders is the boss, he needs a tactic of accountability to get the job done right. Further, his newly appointed chief operating officer, former Navy Admiral Ronne Froman, would be a stellar presence running CitiStat meetings if Sanders couldn’t personally run them all.
In Baltimore, Mayor O’Malley is currently running for governor of Maryland and no longer personally runs all CitiStat meetings, leaving most of them to one of his two deputies. As a former military boss, Froman might appreciate the direct leadership and accountability CitiStat allows.
Mayor Sanders is going to face a painful hurdle in trying to manage the city while being forced to dramatically increase funding to the city’s retirement system to pay down the pension deficit.
If Sanders has a clearer and more immediate picture of overtime costs, absenteeism, workers’ compensation claims, and the specific cost-cutting measures each department is taking to ensure that such financial cuts are actually made, he will be better able to reduce spending within the city.
Controlling the city’s finances more like a state or federal receivership now, before a receivership would ever be necessary, would demonstrate to both citizens and the treasured bond-rating agencies that the city of San Diego is up to the challenge of reducing its spending and paying down its pension deficit. After a while, the city’s ratings will go up and the city can borrow money again to pay for badly needed infrastructure improvements.
Managing City Contracts
Mayor Sanders is planning to outsource numerous city services. While contracting out work to private companies itself may save the city money, monitoring the completion of work, financial costs and ensuring that contractors abide strictly by their contracts through CitiStat would save the city even more money.
Think about the city’s spending on financial consultants: two separate firms hired by the city to restore the city’s bond rating have allowed their contracts to balloon from a total of $750,000 to nearly $20 million.
The law firm of Vinson & Elkins billed the city more than $6 million for writing a report that auditors later called into question and refused to accept. While the city would have limited involvement in monitoring the status of contracts to investigate possible crimes committed by city employees, there should have been more oversight. After all, this is a time when the city’s libraries, for instance, have reduced their hours dramatically to save money.
Baltimore, with its $2 billion budget and 18,000 employees (San Diego has a budget of approximately $2 billion and 10,800 employees), has outsourced more than $45 million worth of city contracts and manages them all through CitiStat.
There are all sorts of ways CitiStat can work in San Diego, and there is more than enough evidence why it is needed in San Diego. For example, in September 2005 The San Diego Union-Tribune published a story detailing how the city’s real estate department has no clue of the number of properties the city owns, their locations, their values, and wasn’t even bothering to maintain many of the properties.
With CitiStat, the real estate department boss would stand before Froman twice every month, explaining the progress of the department’s efforts to count, appraise and maintain city properties. If the job isn’t finished quickly enough, Froman can move forward with her consequences.
On the Baltimore CitiStat Web site are images of maps of both the world and the United States. On each map are small flags that point out the more than 150 cities that have sent representatives to Baltimore to learn more about CitiStat. City government leaders from Modesto, Calgary, West Palm Beach, Baghdad, and Budapest have all sat in Baltimore’s CitiStat room to watch the show. Noticeably absent from the maps is a flag representing visitors from San Diego.
San Diego isn’t the only city facing massive problems. Baltimore was facing financial turmoil, horrendous crime, vociferous unions, and a steadily declining population when Mayor O’Malley began CitiStat in 2000. While the city is far from perfect, Baltimore’s mayor knows exactly what’s going on in his government.
We can certainly learn something from him.
Ramsey Green, a native San Diegan, is a graduate student at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is working on a project to increase accountability within the Philadelphia School District using CitiStat as a model. Reach him at
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