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A Checkup for City Services

by Hilary Russ, Jan 23, 2006
 

In New York City, a dead animal is picked up by the Department of Sanitation if it is on a street or sidewalk, by the Department of Transportation if it is on a highway, by Parks and Recreation if it is in a park, or by the New York City Police Department Marine Unit if it is in the water. If it's in your own home, it's your responsibility. That is not public property.

Dead animals suffered similar variable fates in Baltimore -- until city officials there determined that this was inefficient, costly and confusing. They came to this conclusion in 2000, thanks to something called CitiStat.

CitiStat is part of an approach to government that has become increasingly popular over the past decade. Officials in Baltimore collect statistical information about city services, analyse it, and then share it in meetings with the mayor and the heads of city agencies, where they compare notes and discuss how to fix problems. They have to answer to others when their agency is doing poorly, and they are rewarded when it succeeds.

It was during this process that the problem of animal disposal came up, and the officials decided that there had to be a better way. Now, when any animal dies in Baltimore, its carcass is most likely to be picked up by just one agency, the Department of Health, which got a bigger budget to do so.



A new approach to government accountability -- officially called "performance assessment" but more colloquially, compstatmania -- compiles, analyzes and interprets statistics in order to spot trends, gaps and overlaps in city services. It's not magic -- it's hard work, and follow-up. In this series, Gotham Gazette looks at this approach to improving city services.

That is just one example of the success of a system that could come to New York. A bill, introduced last year by City Councilmember Eric Gioia, would establish CityStat NY, modeled after Baltimore. One of the keys would be data -- collecting, reporting, analyzing, mapping and making it public. It might seem like a topic that only an egghead could love. But data gathered together into report cards about how well a city government agency is performing -- at say, delivering food to the hungry, or finding homes for foster kids -- could prove useful to many New Yorkers.

Call it Compstatmania; it is no exaggeration to say that this approach to city services -- an approach that many would say began in New York City -- has become a national movement. At the very least, such an approach shows how an agency spends its money and how it measures up to its prior performance. But the data can also be sorted and picked apart, analyzed and made into charts, graphs and maps to identify trends, gaps and overlaps in city services -- which, if followed up, would result in improved service to the public.

Centuries Of Record Collecting; The Mayor's Management Report

New York City has been collecting "data" since the early 1600s; the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street is awash in centuries' worth of office records, manuscripts, images, vital records, maps, blueprints, and photographs -- from 1939 to 1941, the city snapped pictures of every single building in all five boroughs, as a tool for property tax appraisals. The City Hall Library has been collecting the budgets, reports, procedures and meeting minutes of city agencies and officials since 1913.

One could date the modern era of slicing and dicing and disseminating this data to 1977, when Mayor Ed Koch released the first annual Mayor's Management Report. Preliminary findings laid out in January and a final report every September provide statistics and information about dozens of city government agencies. The report lists how many potholes are filled, the average cost of housing an inmate, crime statistics, the number of people on the welfare rolls, emergency room visits by residents, how dirty the streets are...the list can seem endless, and overwhelming.

The report has changed over the years. "It used to be the size of the Manhattan phone directory, and now it is a readable size," says Dennis Smith, an associate professor of public policy at New York University's Wagner School. Average citizens, he says, "can find data that experienced scholars had a hard time finding 10 years ago." One major change Bloomberg made was the introduction of "My Neighborhood Statistics," which lets Internet users research information on how well city services are being delivered down to the level of their own neighborhoods.

But some people still find the report overly complex to navigate and yet, at the same time, not informative enough. The report, "while it may display improvements in techniques, has never been lauded as a document that helps a reader pull all of it together so that it is the most understandable," says Peter Mameli, an associate professor in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Compstat, Parkstat, Healthstat, Capstat...

In the early 1980s, the sanitation department began issuing scorecards for itself. It was one early effort to take the idea behind the Mayor's Management Report one step further by focusing not just on data, but on outcomes that actually matter to citizens. In this instance, the department realized that what was important was not necessarily to measure how much trash was collected, but how much was left behind.

By 1994, that idea merged with technological advances to transform once again. That was the year the New York Police Department implemented its Compstat program. Then Police Commissioner William Bratton began tracking where and how many major crimes were being committed. Police then poured the data into a computer database and generated maps and charts of problem spots. Now, instead of focusing on how many police officers were deployed throughout the city as a way to gauge crime-fighting efforts, the department focused on sending them to where they were needed most. Precinct captains endured regular meetings where they were either praised for reducing crime in their areas or chastised for failing to do so. The method was widely lauded as helping slash crime in the city.

It was seen as so successful, in fact, that it was replicated throughout the city and country. It even served as the model for Baltimore's CitiStat. The key to the effectiveness of this kind of analysis, which in some circles is called "performance assessment," is in how the numbers are used. "Anybody who thinks this is just measuring is missing it," says Smith, from the Wagner School. "It has to do with figuring out what measures you need to know, and who needs to know those things when. It's leadership, it's resources, it's creative thinking."

The Department of Parks and Recreation, for example, had been collecting stats on cleanliness and safety in public parks. But it did not manage to cut crime and clean up parks significantly until after it took a cue from Compstat. It began reporting data more often than just once a year and held meetings to discuss problems and hold managers accountable. The percentage of clean, safe parks jumped from 40 percent to 80 percent.

There are yet more measurements for the city. Just last week, the Department of Health launched a new tool on its Web site that lets diners run detailed searches of New York City's 20,000-plus eateries.

What's more, at least 17 city agencies participate in the Citywide Accountability Program (Capstat), a system that is somewhat like having a CityStat for each agency: they measure performance and report results on the Internet. But, according to a 2002 report by the Independent Budget Office, "Capstat mostly reiterates operational information in the Mayor's Management Report and does not reflect the kind of results that really matter to residents."

Why The City Council Wants Citystat

For such a dweeby topic, performance assessment is becoming hipper all the time. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has focused on using technology to streamline government. The 311 system he implemented in 2003 has gleaned useful information about New Yorkers' grievances.

New City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was even more specific in her acceptance speech. Quinn referred to "using technology to find patterns of problems across the city. If multiple neighborhoods can't get stop signs installed in a timely fashion, we should know that is a systemic problem and treat it as such," she said. "If some neighborhoods are saddled with higher unemployment than others, we should quantify it and then direct economic development money to those communities that need it most." Other city council members applauded loudly. Quinn acknowledged what good data can do -- identify problems large or small.

CityStat could do that. Based on the Compstat model, it is an accountability system that would provide analyses of how well city agencies are performing and then put that information on the Web. Each city agency would have to produce a report card on its own performance using data from specific indicators relevant to the work it does. It would then have to report that information to the city council and put it on the Internet at regular intervals. In theory, there would be a central location to access the different report cards and data produced through Compstat, Parkstat, Capstat and the Mayor's Management Report.

"It's based on the theory that sunlight is the best disinfectant," says Gioia, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations and the bill's sponsor. He and other proponents of such a system point to the success of Citistat in Baltimore, which cost under $300,000 to launch but saved that city some $43 million in its first three years. It almost immediately helped slash overtime, improve productivity and reduce absenteeism among city employees; it quadrupled the amount of graffiti removal in the city and cut complaints about potholes.

The details of how it would work in New York are somewhat unclear. In Baltimore, for example, a citizen cannot search a massive database and come up with whatever specialized information he wants. Instead, the CitiStat staff releases a report each week about a different government agency. Here, however, public access is one of the key selling points of the system.

The Bloomberg administration does not seem impressed with the proposal. The bill as it stands now "is riddled with problems," says Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for the mayor, whose Office of Operations would be instrumental in implementing such a system. For example, Barowitz says, the CityStat bill "demands that some figures be reported monthly, when they are collected semi-annually. The bill needs to be completely overhauled," he said.

Roadblocks And Miracles

Despite Capstat and the Mayor's Management Report, some city agencies are still just catching up. Two years ago, homeless New Yorkers with HIV or AIDS might have found themselves dumped in leaky, unlocked apartments without heat, hot water, electricity, mattresses or toilet paper. Sometimes they ended up trapped there for months, despite legal mandates for the city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration to move them quickly to permanent housing. Nearly three-quarters of the emergency and transitional rooming had housing violations, according to a 2004 investigation by the City Council Committee on Oversight and Investigations.

As stultifying as the problems the committee found was a roadblock it encountered along the way: a dearth of data from the AIDS services agency itself. Most shockingly, the agency kept no master list of referrals and placements where people with AIDS could go for emergency shelter. The lack of a centralized system meant that caseworkers usually did not know whether a landlord was negligent or an apartment was sub-standard. So some clients waited months, if not years, for permanent placement while others got shoved back into rooms that had already been found to be uninhabitable.

"It was everything you are afraid of in government, that there is no one in charge and no one monitoring results," Gioia said. "It was a broken system that was failing miserably at its goals."

The city council passed three new laws after the committee released its report on the city's AIDS agency. One of those laws requires that the agency create and maintain a referral and placement master list.

If some city agencies don't seem to get what all the fuss about keeping records and analyzing data is about, others have become true believers -- thanks to some apparent miracles. This is what happened at the Department of Corrections, which since 1995 has run TEAMS, short for Total Efficiency Accountability Management System. As part of that system, officials noticed a spike in inmates trying to sneak in contraband material that could be made into weapons. Paying close attention to the data, they realized that the increase came mostly from one facility, and intuited a larger problem brewing among inmates. All this helped the Department of Corrections cut inmate-on-inmate violence, officials say, by 97 percent.

 


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