15 January 2015

"A graph moving the right direction is the most beautiful achievement in self governance. The pace of progress is variable and negotiable, the direction of progress is not."
(Governor Martin O’Malley, Letters to the People of Maryland, January 2015).

In this blog, Jen Gold and Gavin Freeguard report on their visit to Maryland.

'I didn’t come into politics to make the lines on the graphs go in the right direction.'

Prime Minister David Cameron, speech to Conservative Party Conference, October 2014

David Cameron’s comments on graphs at last October’s Conservative Party conference raised a few eyebrows (and a few laughs). It was only the start of an anti-chartist rebellion in British politics that month, with pound-shop populist Russell Brand declaring he didn’t have time for graphs.

One politician who makes time for them is Martin O’Malley, two-term Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore. As we describe in our new report, Data-Driven Delivery, O’Malley has staked his reputation on making lines on graphs run in the right direction, using targets and data analytics to improve public services through his ‘Stat’ model of governing.

This is not an approach for the faint-hearted. But as O’Malley has written in advice to future holders of office: ‘Effective Leaders make themselves vulnerable – own the goals of the government you run and the people you lead, or no one else will’.

As mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley not only imported CompStat into Baltimore City Police, but adapted it to running the whole of city government through CitiStat. As Governor, he introduced StateStat, proving the model can also work at the state level, where:

  • A small StateStat team collects and analyses data from state agencies, turning it into a briefing for the Governor and other senior staff.
  • Regular meetings bring together the heads of the agencies, allowing the Governor and his staff to chase progress but also for agencies to ask for support.
  • The StateStat team follows up on commitments made in the meetings, working closely with the agencies involved.

O’Malley has made two major innovations at StateStat. A Delivery Unit – based on the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit set up by Tony Blair – has been introduced and tracks 16 cross-agency goals. The Stat process has also been opened up to public scrutiny.

The Stat model has spread to other counties and cities across the United States, and has been adopted by a number of federal agencies (notably the recovery.gov project which tracked data on federal stimulus spending).

Why is the Stat model significant?

1. It helps political leaders deliver on their campaign promises

The Stat model should be recognised for what it is: a resource for politicians. By assembling a team to gather and analyse performance data from across government, political leaders can tell if delivery is on track. By having that team conduct site visits and convene cross-agency meetings, problems can be diagnosed and action plans developed to fix them. The Stat process is ultimately about a more effective way of governing, setting clear priorities and forcing the leaders of different agencies to break out of their silos.

2. Delivery matters to voters

Recent polling by the Institute for Government as part of our Programme for Effective Government suggests that UK voters have little confidence in politicians’ ability to deliver on their campaign commitments. Yet two-thirds are more likely to vote for a political party that actually spells out how they will go about turning their promises into real change on the ground.

The Stat model has enabled Governor O’Malley to gain a reputation for taking delivery seriously. One of the key features of his particular brand of performance management is the way he has embraced more open government. Citizens can use interactive dashboards to see in almost real-time whether his administration is on track to deliver his goals for office. They can also attend performance review meetings, and access summaries of these meetings and agency data online. Disclosing poor performance lends greater credibility to reports of success.

What does the future hold?

O’Malley’s departure from office next week offers a timely reminder of the challenges that changes of administration pose to performance management systems. StateStat’s future hangs in the balance.

The UK faces similar challenges ahead of the May general election. It’s important to avoid the upheaval seen in 2010, when the Coalition Government disbanded the Delivery Unit created under Tony Blair’s premiership. Yet just a year later, frustrated by the absence of a mechanism to drive key priorities such as economic growth, David Cameron’s government had to bring back something resembling the Delivery Unit in the guise of the Implementation Unit.

If 2010 has taught us anything then it is this: adapt, re-brand – but don’t disband. Parties need to make clear how they plan to deliver on their promises and what means they will use to drive change. Graph lines going in the right direction – and being seen to do so – do matter.