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The City of Buffalo Needs a Bolder CitiStat Program

My interest in CitiStat goes back over 10 years. One day I came across an article that highlighted Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s efforts to improve the operation of government, by measuring and tracking performance. On a regular basis O’Malley brought city department heads before a panel of top-ranking city officials and questioned them about their strategies for acheiving goals and objectives. O’Malley’s goal was to use data to push government to operate better, faster, and cheaper.

Intrigued by what was happening in Baltimore, I persuaded Buffalo Councilmember Joseph Golombek, Jr., to introduce a resolution in the Common Council encouraging the Masiello administration to implement CitiStat in Buffalo. Golombek, in his usual fashion, was relentless in bringing up CitiStat every opportunity he could. Golombek arranged to have an O’Malley staffer come and speak to Ccity officials about the benefits of CitiStat. Under the Masiello administration, small steps were taken regarding CitiStat but it never really got off the ground.

When Byron Brown began making the rounds to run for Mmayor of Buffalo, Golombek encouraged Brown to make CitiStat a key part of his campaign. To his credit, Brown liked the idea and made CitiStat a key part of his mayoral platform and followed through with implementing it early in his administration.

While I applaud Byron Brown for making CitiStat happen, Buffalo’s version of CitiStat is lacking in many ways when compared to other cities.

LouieStat

Case in point is how the City of Louisville, Kentucky operates their CitiStat. While similiar in population to Buffalo, Louisville takes CitiStat to a greater level of government accountability and transparency.

As Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, points out in a blog post:

…while many public entities now have programs designed to use performance metrics to drive change, not all of them succeed at being more than just a reporting system and actually changing employee behavior. Louisville’s LouieStat, on the other hand, is an initiative that not only has improved the performance of the Kentucky city’s government but also has transformed its operational culture.

The key parts to LouieStat are:

• linking performance to strategy;

• giving employees not only the discretion and authority to produce results but also the training they need;

• welcoming community input;

• an open data effort with an innovation office;

• a six-year plan that sets 21 overarching city goals;

• agency heads develop departmental strategic plans;

• employee skills are linked to performance by using data to target employee training plans aimed at continuous improvement;

• employee recognition is utilized as an important tool for driving performance.

Last September, Louisville hosted a “Day of Celebration” to recognize more than 220 city employees as early adopters and leaders in innovation and continuous improvement, and more than 50 awards for particularly exemplary work were given out to city workers nominated by their co-workers.

LouieStat has changed the way the city interacts with its residents. Public forums on particular topics are attended by agency representatives who present LouieStat data with the objective of identifying creative solutions to city challenges. Officials collect public-feedback cards, which are incorporated into the dialogue. In addition to transparency and accountability, the forums provide a platform for innovative problem-solving.

Louisville has an Office of Performance Improvement (OPI) that works with its departments to identify key performance indicators for each department. OPI works with departments to identify the areas in which they can improve current performance. Part of this process includes finding appropriate benchmarks for each key performance indicator by identifying who is the best in the country.

A report is generated that displays the following for each city department: data for the previous and current fiscal year; the goal for that Key Performance Indicator benchmarks internally and externally; overall performance.

Louisville’s mayor has established a vision to be the best managed city in the nation. To achieve that vision, Louisville benchmarks and compares its performance to other cities. In addition to tracking performance, Louisville’s mayor is dedicated to transparency in government and a tremendous amount of information is readily available on-line to the public.

How does Buffalo compare?

There really is not an articulated strategy from Mayor Brown for moving Buffalo forward. Developing an overall strategy for the city requires getting the Common Council, the school district, the sewer authority, the housing authority, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, and all city departments on the same page behind a vision for a better city. It can be done, but it requires work and communication. The Buffalo City Charter requires the city’s director of strategic planning (appointed by the mayor) to hold quarterly meetings with all of the above-named entities to establish and monitor a strategy for the city. The meetings, required by the City Charter, have never been held, and as a result the city does not have a strategy for success.

City departments do not have developed strategic plans or even high-priority goals that employees can articulate and understand their role in the big picture.

As mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani met with his top department heads every morning to ensure that everyone was moving forward on the same page. Meetings between Brown and his department heads as a group are a rare event. Leaders bring people together, break down the silos that exist in government, and communicate an overall vision.

The Brown administration does not believe in giving department heads or employees discretion or authority to make decisions. Everything from big issues to small items are micro-managed through the mayor’s office. People are afraid to make bold or creative moves, as any misstep is immediately criticized. The environment that is created is: Don’t make waves, do as you are told, and don’t make a move without permission.

The Buffalo News, Artvoice, and I have experienced how difficult it is to obtain information from the Brown administration. There is very little about the Brown administration that is open and transparent. While the CitiStat meetings are taped and placed on TV, none of the data that is shown on TV during department presentations are available on the city’s website. The public cannot hold city officials accountable for performance results, as the public has no way of viewing and comparing any of the data being tracked by city departments.

If you as a concerned citizen attend a CitiStat meeting and ask for copies of the information presented, the response received is to file a Freedom of Information request. Heck, when I simply tried to find out what department was appearing at an upcoming CitiStat meeting, I received an opinion from the city’s law department stating that legally the city did not have to tell me who was appearing and as such they were not going to tell me. Really quite amazing.

Just another part of the mayor’s PR machine

Sadly, the potential to truly change the culture and performance of government has become just another part of Mayor Brown’s public relations machine. As with most politicians, press conferences and a positive media image are very important to Mayor Brown. The last two CitiStat directors have been former employees of TV news stations. Often CitiStat meetings seem like press conferences, where the positive accomplishments of the mayor are highlighted as much as possible. CitiStat meetings can be informative and at times issues identified at a CitiStat meeting result in benefical changes being made.

I applaud Mayor Brown for implementing CitiStat and sticking with it for many years now. However, we need a new, bolder CitiStat approach similar to what is being done in Louisville. The data being tracked by Buffalo’s CitiStat program should be on-line and available for the public to see. The goals and objectives being tracked through CitiStat should be part of an overall vision and strategy for the City of Buffalo. How to improve upon the existing CitiStat program is something that will hopefully be discussed in the upcoming mayoral election.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and president of the Center For Reinventing Government Inc. (www.reinventinggov.org).

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