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Can a Technocratic Governor Ignite the Democratic Base? Can a Technocratic Governor Ignite the Democratic Base?

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Can a Technocratic Governor Ignite the Democratic Base?

Martin O’Malley has devoted his career to government accountability. But that's not his ticket to the presidency.

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Pondering his next move? The governor in his Annapolis office.(Chet Susslin)

ANNAPOLIS, Md.—As a prospective presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley doesn’t fit neatly drawn stereotypes. He served as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and as an attack dog for President Obama’s campaign against Mitt Romney, but his partisanship is belied by his laid-back demeanor. He won two terms as governor, but his job-approval rating is ordinary, especially considering he runs a heavily Democratic state. He passed a package of base-pleasing, socially progressive bills in his second term that would animate a national run, but he’s as interested in talking about his passion for government reform, of using data to harness sclerotic bureaucracies, than he is about gay marriage and other social issues.

At times, O’Malley sounds more like Leslie Knope, the do-gooder city councilwoman in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, than an aspiring 45th president of the United States. He possesses a sunny optimism in the constructive force that government can play to improve lives. He revels in talking about the nuts and bolts of municipal governance—the pothole-fixing, trash-collecting, emergency-reacting requirements that can make or break mayors.

 

“With the emergence of technology and the Internet, people want their leaders to be entrepreneurial; they have to be collaborative, they have to be performance-driven. And that’s how we’ve governed,” O’Malley said in an interview in his State House office, reciting his accomplishments as governor and as mayor of Baltimore.

See also: "Is It Time to Take Martin O'Malley Seriously?"

Indeed, O’Malley gets most excited when he discusses his passion for data-driven management, holding government agencies responsible for their regularly measured performance in a program known as StateStat. It’s a message that, at times, sounds downright conservative, with its relentless focus on meritocracy and accountability. Despite his reputation as a true-blue liberal, O’Malley is pitching a “Moneyball” message for government at a time when public funding is tougher to come by.

 

“Moneyball is the textbook. It’s the same basic idea that you’ve got these activities where you have this enormous amount of data—how can you harness that data to make better management decisions,” says O’Malley’s chief of staff, Matt Gallagher, who has worked alongside him for 13 years since O’Malley was first elected mayor of Baltimore. “O’Malley and [Oakland A’s general manager] Billy Beane are kindred spirits.”

O’Malley’s biggest challenge is that he’s arguing for an activist government at a time when trust in government is near an all-time low. The book Moneyball, after all, was a treatise about how a small-market baseball team, the A’s, could win games on a shoestring budget. O’Malley is making the case for both more government and more innovative government—and the next two years will test his optimism on several fronts. Indeed, O’Malley’s Maryland is a real-life laboratory for whether some of the Obama administration’s favored policies can work at the statewide level.

“The answer to a lot of our problems [in government] is not to do less. And for all the innovations in government that have happened in our country over the last 10 years, especially in the area of performance, there’s still no way to build a $100 million bridge for $10 million,” O’Malley says.

Maryland is one of the first states to begin setting up the health care exchanges mandated by Obama’s 2010 law. As part of his stump speech, O’Malley maintains that Maryland’s early implementation of “Obamacare” will lead to more jobs and innovation. “We’ve bet the farm on something we’ve never done to scale before—implementing the exchanges and making them work,” says Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. O’Malley acknowledges that the law poses a challenge to whether a well-managed state can handle implementation: “It is a test of whether we’re capable of governing, and whether we’re capable of figuring out difficult issues,” he says.

 

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It’s not just health care. In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, O’Malley passed tough gun-control regulations that are among the strictest in the nation; the coming years will test the proposition of whether implementing such laws can reduce crime. He’s argued that his progressive social policies—a state-level Dream Act for illegal immigrants, support for gay marriage—will cultivate a creative class in the state, boosting its economy. It’s an intriguing proposition, but one without much supporting empirical evidence. He hiked the state’s gas tax to fund transportation projects. Will the additional money help fix the Washington metropolitan area’s notoriously gridlocked traffic? He passed two tax increases on the wealthy, touting his model of “progressive taxation,” but Maryland’s April 2013 unemployment rate of 6.5 percent is not much below the national average—it also lags neighboring Virginia’s 5.1 percent rate.

O’Malley wastes little time in arguing that his policies have already led to results. At a stump-like speech at the Center for American Progress in late May, the governor touted Maryland’s first-place national rankings on education (per Education Week), its innovation (per the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and its top standing on median income, among other bulletin-board material. These are the types of sexy statistics that are fodder for presidential-campaign rhetoric. By contrast, the notion of government innovation garnered only two sentences in the governor’s prepared remarks (The money quote: “Our children demand and deserve a new way of leadership that is entrepreneurial, collaborative, relentlessly interactive, and measured always by whether or not we are achieving better results.”)

But proving government’s effectiveness is fast becoming a national Democratic Party prerequisite, given the increasingly low opinion that voters hold of Washington’s capabilities. A Quinnipiac poll in May found that only 15 percent of voters trusted the federal government to “do the right thing” all or most of the time, while 36 percent responded “hardly ever”—up 9 points in the last three years. More significantly, the controversies consuming the Obama administration go to the heart of managerial competence. To deflect charges of politically targeted negligence, Stephen Miller, the former director of the Internal Revenue Service, said his agency offered “horrible customer service.” On Benghazi, a White House official conceded to CBS News in May: “We’re portrayed by Republicans as either being lying or idiots…. It’s actually closer to us being idiots.”

O’Malley himself is dealing with an embarrassing scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center that threatens to tarnish his administration’s carefully cultivated reputation for competence. According to a federal indictment, violent gang members in the jail controlled the facility, smuggling in drugs, money, and cell phones with the assistance of corrupt corrections officers. One gang member fathered five children with prison guards. O’Malley’s initial response was to convene a task force to examine the problems. It was a decision that hardly squared with the take-charge approach one imagines from a muscular chief executive, and legislators from his own party criticized it. Equally significant, the state’s labor-enforced protections for prison workers made it difficult to replace incompetent employees. In one glaring anecdote front-paged by The Washington Post, the jail rehired a corrections officer nine months after she had resigned for letting gang members brutally attack an inmate.

This type of problem is more of an accountability challenge than a number-crunching one. And once a bureaucracy grows to a certain size, this level of accountability—the routine hiring and firing occurring in the private sector—becomes harder to achieve. Add union-supported workplace protections that make it difficult to fire incompetent employees, and even the most innovative strategies can fall flat. It’s no coincidence that even in his own telling, most of O’Malley’s biggest success stories with government reform came during his tenure as Baltimore mayor, when he had a smaller, more nimble bureaucracy to harness.

“At the state level, you’re more physically removed from what’s going on. But if you have good data systems, and we’ve used StateStat as a convening force, it still applies. You just have to get more creative with the use of technology,” O’Malley Chief of Staff Gallagher says, citing efforts to eliminate the backlog on DNA testing and to coordinate cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, where the CitiStat model was brought to scale.

O’Malley himself recognizes the importance of workforce flexibility, in theory. He movingly cites his friendship with the late New York City Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Maple, whose pioneering tracking and analysis of crime data served as an inspiration for O’Malley’s crime-fighting innovations as mayor of Baltimore. Quoting Maple, he says: “In any big organization, there’s 10 percent that are the high performers, 10 percent that is the slackers. And if the leader has a system in place that recognizes the high performers, that 80 percent in the middle will lean towards the leaders. And in that tilt is nation-leading progress.”

Inspirational stuff—if you can fire the slackers and low performers. But the scandal in the Baltimore jail is an example of the roadblocks that leaders face when state workers have generous job-security protection that insulates them from accountability. To reform-minded Democratic thinkers, the need for civil-service reforms is as important as the government programs that follow.

Democrats, whose party supports expansive government, recognize they have to prove that government can work effectively if they are going to successfully call for more of it. In his recently published book Citizenville, former San Francisco Mayor and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom argued that “government right now is functioning on the cutting edge—of 1973” and needs to innovate fast to maintain relevance. At the Third Way think tank, Democratic policy advisers acknowledge that growing entitlement costs threaten to crowd out public spending on more productive government endeavors, such as medical research, education, and infrastructure. Even Democratic mayors in liberal cities understand that education reforms—promoting accountability and challenging influential teachers unions—are needed to keep young professionals from moving when they start looking for their children’s schools. (O’Malley acknowledged that one of his “frustrations” as governor was with county school boards opposing accountability systems. “They have been reluctant implementers,” he says.)

NUMBERS GAME

O’Malley’s interest in using data to drive government performance began when he was an up-and-coming Baltimore city council member in the late-1990s, a time when the murder rate there was one of the worst in the country. During his 1999 campaign for mayor, O’Malley took the audacious step of pledging to cut the city’s crime rate in half—in an election where crime was the dominant subject. He won both the primary and general election in landslides, and he immediately began a laborious process to reform the city’s crime-fighting techniques by importing the New York City approach to Baltimore.

O’Malley recruited Maple to help. He replaced Police Chief Ronald Daniel, an African-American, who was resistant to many of the changes, with a white, hard-charging former NYPD officer, Edward Norris, who was experienced with the CompStat model of crime tracking. O’Malley spent nearly all of his political capital in the early stage of his mayoralty committed to getting the system up and running. In 2000, the number of homicides in the city dipped below 300 for the first time in a decade, and the murder rate trickled downward for the next two years before stabilizing. While Baltimore never achieved the same successes as New York City in cracking down on homicides, O’Malley convinced voters that his approach was working.

As mayor, O’Malley expanded his data-first approach into what became known as CitiStat, a data-tracking program designed to improve customer service. It was an accountability system. The program collected data on everything from potholes to rodent control, and measured whether the problems were being fixed in a timely fashion. In O’Malley’s telling, the pre-CitiStat era featured constituents pledging fealty to individual city-council members in an attempt to get basic services fixed. Under the new era, citizens were able to call 311 and immediately get their problems tracked and resolved.

“Those who observed CitiStat in the earliest days said this is how they’re going to crack down on the slackers and the people who don’t show up for work. But it actually had a deeper effect, in the confidence and trust that was restored between the people and their municipal government,” O’Malley says. “It allowed us to imbue our workforce with a better culture of meritocracy.”

As important, all the data-collecting was used to pursue efficiency within many of the city’s notoriously bloated agencies. The O’Malley administration tracked which divisions had the highest absentee rates and which were using the most overtime, among other metrics suggesting low productivity. It then used the results to figure out problems and how to solve them. All told, the administration boasted $350 million in savings from CitiStat, mostly by using metrics to measure, and then cut, waste.

That tough-on-spending message is resonant in the governor’s message to this day. On the speaking circuit, O’Malley regularly reminds the audience that as governor, he has cut more in spending than his predecessors and has reduced the size of the state government since taking office. He touts the collaborative approach he used in changing the state’s pension system, working with unions to demand larger contributions from workers.

“The conservative narrative is that government’s problem is it just throws money at problems, it spends more and more money, and it’s an input-based problem at its core,” says University of Maryland’s Kettl, an advocate of the program. “The central premise of StateStat and CitiStat is that government ought to be about results. It provides a counter from the Left to government criticism from the Right.”

But when it came to expanding CitiStat to the statewide level, O’Malley faced limitations bringing data-centered accountability measures to a larger scale. Many of the policies that the governor publicly pursued—tax fairness, gay rights, ending the death penalty, offering benefits to children of illegal immigrants—are predominantly ideological, with solutions unlikely to be crafted through data mining. State government is larger and more complex than municipal governance, and its role in helping its constituents is less obvious. O’Malley officials argue that the biggest accomplishments the data-driven approach have brought at the state level stem from the increased accountability in getting agencies to work together effectively.

Every month, O’Malley convenes the heads of Maryland’s largest operational agencies for a 90-minute meeting where the governor’s senior aides question the Cabinet secretaries on their performance using data developed by StateStat analysts. One of O’Malley’s biggest statewide successes has been BayStat, a program that closely monitors pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and demands collaboration between the six disparate agencies with a stake in the estuary’s environmental health. Administration officials also tout their work in reducing a backlog of collected DNA samples from suspects and criminals, helping to solve crimes with the processing of that information.

Still, even O’Malley acknowledges the limitations of bringing city reforms to the state. “The reason mayors have an easier time doing that than governors is because you can’t really hide whether or not you’re effective, whether your city [is] becoming better or not, when you’re a mayor. Either the alley’s dirty or it’s clean,” O’Malley says. “At the level of governor, where everything is more collaborative, it’s just not as apparent to the naked eye what our state governments actually do.”

A LEFT TURN

As O’Malley considers a 2016 presidential run, his biggest challenge is balancing his well-honed instincts to blame Republicans as former chairman of the Democratic Governors Association with the nonideological tone he pitches when talking about good government.

In his CAP speech, he criticized George W. Bush for making it challenging for Maryland to recover from the recession, former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich for leaving him with an “inherited $1.7 billion deficit,” and Republican governors for “eliminating the jobs of police officers, firefighters, and teachers at a scale rarely seen.” His campaign-honed worldview: Republicans are bad, Democrats are good. All this, while maintaining a nonideological pose in his big-picture pitch: “It’s not about whether we move left or right; it’s about whether we move forward or back.”

Democrats are skeptical that O’Malley will challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton if she runs—the governor is publicly complimentary of her—but he’s one of the few alternatives who could capture the base’s affections by running to her left on social issues. A Clinton candidacy would make it difficult for other female contenders to get momentum and could freeze out New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, given their shared New York residency. That leaves precious few Democratic alternatives, with O’Malley best-equipped to fill that vacuum. His record legalizing gay marriage, ending the death penalty, and passing tough gun control will be music to Democratic activists’ ears. He boasts strong relationships with labor, environmental, and civil-rights groups—a necessity for any lesser-known underdog in a presidential race.

So while his government reforms sound reminiscent of former President Clinton’s New Democratic approach, his path to national relevance would focus more on his appeal to traditional Democratic interest groups. He needs to run as a progressive activist, albeit one with a knack for making bureaucracies work—perhaps the biggest contradiction in the O’Malley message.

“Accountability and systems of metrics provide a gateway to make people comfortable with [his] priorities in government,” says longtime O’Malley media strategist David Dixon. “They’re more likely to believe you that you’re doing the right things on schools, health care, biotech investments, and roads if you can also show them you are measuring success.”

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