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Martin O’Malley Reflects on Gov Tech Legacy, Future of America’s Cities

The former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore says major cities will lead American government into the future, with sensors and predictive analytics that allow for unprecedented service and accountability.

ATLANTA — Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore who ranks among the most influential leaders in gov tech, sees reason to be optimistic about the future of government, and he sees it in city halls and on college campuses.

Few are better positioned to see hope in these places than O’Malley, who served two terms as mayor and another two terms as governor before running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. O’Malley now chairs the advisory committee of the MetroLab Network, which facilitates collaborative relationships between city governments and academia.

O’Malley spoke earlier this month at MetroLab’s annual summit in Atlanta, taking time during the event to talk with Government Technology about the future of gov tech, his own legacy and how this work is reshaping government for the better, as well as the role MetroLab plays.

“Citizen expectations have been elevated by the private sector in this Uber generation,” O’Malley said. “People expect visibility, they expect transparency, they expect service delivery, and they expect government to be able to deliver with the same proficiency and technical capacity that the private sector does, and who can blame them? Expectations have been raised, and that’s a good thing. The better men and women, who are leading America’s cities, have figured out they have more freedom to try new things, to advance innovations and to up the technical capacities of government in ways that 10 years ago might have seemed like a frivolous or risky expenditure.”

The Future of Gov Tech

O’Malley also sees two concepts steadily emerging from cities and universities in the MetroLab Network: expanded use of sensors and better predictive analytics.

“Those things are part and parcel by the movement in government enabled by technology that’s moving us from being governments where decisions are made based on hunch or politics, to based on evidence, from the ability to respond to calls for service, to being able to actually anticipate or deploy resources based on alerts or past history,” he said.

More cities — including Chicago, Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo. — use the Internet of Things (IoT) to collect data, getting clearer pictures of air quality, traffic and crime. Often with help from universities, they also use analytics to anticipate problems. The data also shows how tax dollars are being spent and the tangible results they’re creating.

Cities are at the forefront of a new way of governing, according to O’Malley. “One day it will percolate up to states, and then hopefully up to federal government, but cities are at the forefront of a new and better way of government,” he said. “It’s no longer simply command and control, a hierarchy of rank and position, it’s about collaboration, about doing what works. It’s fundamentally entrepreneurial. What technology gives us is the ability to actually see and model the belief space, if you will, that is the physical environment of a city, and to take actions that affect in a positive way the dynamic in a city to become a comfier, safer and more prosperous place.”

Reshaping Government for the Better

This idea that innovation is changing the way government functions is taking hold slowly. Mayors as a group can be hesitant to try something untested because even just one high-profile failure can reduce chances for re-election. Once an idea has been proven, however, it spreads quickly. O’Malley said MetroLab is a means of holding up successful partnerships to de-risk ideas for other mayors.

“Every mayor wants to be the best at doing something second,” O’Malley said. “In Silicon Valley, if you fail multiple times, but you have one or two big successes, you’re hailed as a great entrepreneur. You have a few failures as mayor, especially where technology is concerned — people get fired for that and lose elections. So, it’s important to de-risk it, because it’s one thing to make investments with investors’ money, and certainly you have fiduciary duties there, but people are making investments and they’re taking a risk. When it comes to tax dollars, there’s a higher bar of scrutiny that people apply, and rightly so.”

For many years, the chief rule of government has been to do things because your boss told you to. With data, however, this is also changing.

“Those rules are insufficient anymore,” O’Malley said. “The new rule is do it because I can show you it works. It really does promise a renewal of democracy, of self-governance. That’s really the only way forward. We’ve got to stop clinging to the past.”

O’Malley’s Continuing Legacy

There are no official rankings, but one struggles to find an elected leader whose work has inspired more progress in gov tech than O’Malley.

Under his leadership, Baltimore developed one of the earliest 311 call centers in the country, as well as one of the first programs that gathers data to track and improve the performance of city workers. The latter program was called CitiStat (modified to StateStat when O’Malley was governor), and it has led to a wave of similar initiatives nationwide.

In fact, during the conference a public servant from New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families told O’Malley her agency’s ChildStat program was based on his work. While names and details differ, both 311 call centers and stat programs have spread.

“I like to believe our success informed some of that,” O’Malley said. “I used to love when other mayors would take what we’d done and use it to get results in their own cities.”

One example is a program Baltimore developed to identify where children were at risk for lead poisoning, a program later replicated by St. Louis.

Citing a religious quotation, O’Malley says, “To do the tough work of public service, you have to approach it with the attitude that if you save just one life, it’s as if you’ve saved the world, but at the same time, there is a joy that comes from seeing other people learn from your piece of the experiment and build upon it to save even more lives.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine