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Baker to unveil government accountability tool in Prince George’s

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The fate of his Annapolis wish list — a $1 billion casino, a 5-cent bag fee and a revised state aid formula for public schools — may not become clear until the final hours of the General Assembly session next month. But back home in Upper Marlboro, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is trying to tackle something less dependent on state largesse: making the county government more responsive to the community’s needs.

On Monday, Baker (D) is to unveil CountyStat, the first of several steps his administration proposes to take this year to improve government services.

The goal is simple: analyze data to help identify what is working and what isn’t.

From how long it takes to fill a pothole or respond to a call for police to details about the high euthanasia rate at the county animal shelter, CountyStat is designed to provide timely, useful data to officials and residents.

Philip Joyce, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on government accountability, said the data can prompt useful questions. But, he said, “it doesn’t necessarily give you the answers.”

New York City pioneered the strategy, which has helped governments pinpoint needs and allocate resources. As mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley (D) set up CitiStat, and after he was elected governor of Maryland, he set up StateStat.

“It is a great accountability tool,” said Baker, who ran on a platform of making government more open and accountable and hopes to deliver on that promise in his second year in office.

After he was elected in 2010, Baker inherited a county government of 6,000 employees, which can be difficult to navigate. Some departments in the $2.7 billion-a-year government are more successful than others at providing customer service, and businesses and residents complain that tasks such as obtaining a permit can be a lengthy — and costly — challenge.

Businesses and residents say multiple trips to county offices, often in different parts of the county, are routinely needed to get things done. The county government’s and County Council’s Web sites, which have the potential to make government more accessible, often are short on such basics as employee e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.

Most of the CountyStat sessions will be open to the public, according to the administration, and most of the findings will be posted on a CountyStat Web site, which should be operating within a few days.

Closed sessions will be held only if needed to address personnel matters or certain public safety questions, said Adam Ortiz, head of the County­Stat office, which will have a budget of $300,000 this year.

Ortiz said that as he delved into the data, he found that unifying data collection systems could be the first challenge, because some county offices have computers and collection systems that cannot “talk” to others in county government.

That has made it difficult to see the big picture, let alone identify potential trouble spots.

“Data and information is fragmented across the government,” he said.

The issue of home foreclosures is an example. Jennie F. Nevin, a staff member in the CountyStat office, has been assessing data related to foreclosures. She said it is difficult to identify people at risk of foreclosure and then connect them with county services to avoid eviction. “There is no central place for the information,” she said.

Bradford Seamon, Baker’s acting chief administrative officer, said CountyStat will help track the administration’s progress toward its goals in public safety, health care, environmental protection and other areas.

“It helps us see how and where the county’s money is being spent,” he said.

Besides CountyStat, the administration will soon make available an online form that can be filled out by anyone seeking county services or information, officials say, and will set up a 311, non-emergency phone system that should take pressure off the 911 system and enable the government to better track calls and responses.

Baker’s next step in his accountability program is to unveil a plan to beef up the county’s Ethics Commission, which has been largely dormant in recent years, even as then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) was operating a wide-ranging bribery scheme that led him to a seven-year term in federal prison.

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