Data-Driven Governance?

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ImageDuring a recent World Bank retreat, my colleagues and I  visited Baltimore, a city that has developed some interesting, low-cost, innovative strategies to improve governance and increase transparency in policymaking. These strategies could be applied in many of the developing cities where we work, and, I will admit,  stumbling across this initiative was akin to finding hidden treasure.

During the retreat, we learned of a now 10-year-old initiative run by the municipal government called CitiStat– a tool for maximizing the resources of a cash-strapped government and increasing transparency and coordination of government agencies. And I have to tell you, watching this system work in practice was positively inspiring.

The program was established as a new form of city management, intended to make municipal governance “responsive, accountable, and cost effective.” As I understand, the system comprises three parts:

  • Data collection, reporting, and consolidation;
  • Data analysis; and
  • Data-driven bi-monthly performance evaluations between different municipal departments and the mayor’s administration.

Performance data is collected through two methods – regular reporting requirements of the relevant department and a system called “311” – a phone number Baltimore residents can use to report non-emergency city service needs (e.g.,  for transport, calls may concern potholes that need to be fixed, requests for additional transport service in select areas, missing signage, need for snow removal). These requests are logged in the CitiStat database, and the transport agency is held accountable for looking into these service requests. Through the 311 system, rather than the onus being placed entirely on the transport department to identify maintenance, service, and labor needs as they arise, the work is partially spread across the city’s residents. Performance data reporting requirements for the transport department may include logs of how 311 requests were handled, service provision statistics, labor data (wages, overtime, absenteeism, etc.), and/or construction and maintenance activities.

Using these two sources of data, CitiStat analysts use statistical methods to identify areas where city departments are doing well, where there are needs for improvement, and where the performance data seems unexpected and requires further investigation.

Periodically, municipal departments are invited to meet with the mayor and her staff in the CitiStat “war room”, where analysts prepare graphs and charts and flash them on the room’s walls in front of department representatives and mayoral administration. As the performance data is presented (e.g., number of pothole or streetlight repair requests that have gone unaddressed, unexplained differentials in worker pay, particularly remarkable improvements in bus service along a given route), department representatives are asked to respond, and the administration and the department representatives work together to identify constructive ways to improve performance. Having the performance metrics out in the open, for everyone to see, keeps the discussion focused and concrete. 

After learning about the system, we had the opportunity to see it in action, during a meeting between the deputy mayor and staff and the municipal health department. During the rapid-fire meeting, statistics related to the health department’s performance were flashed on the walls, while relevant staffers were called upon to explain the numbers. Based on their responses, the deputy mayor would initiate discussion with the department representatives on how the administration could work with them to overcome difficulties or challenges, including types of resources that could be provided.

The process by which decisions were made during this session was open, to the point, and with all the relevant persons and data there in one room, efficient. I was fascinated. And, as I write this blog post from Kunming, I wonder how this type of transparency and data collection system would work in some of the places where I work – where city decisions are made behind closed doors, where political aims, rather than data and statistics, are the main drivers for decision making…

According to CitiStat staff, key success factors have been strong leadership – the meetings are convened by the mayoral staff, which has the ability to hire and fire department heads, quick decision-making format to avoid protracted delays, and the relatively low cost of the program.

I should say, not everyone in my cohort was so enamored by this concept – in particular, there was some debate about the system being reactive versus proactive.
Have you worked with something similar before? Thoughts?

For more information about CitiStat, see:


Holly Krambeck

Senior Transport Economist

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