By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
As mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley (D) embraced the ambitious goal of driving down his city's stubbornly high homicide count to 175 a year. He never came close, but his boosters say O'Malley's focus helped galvanize a significant reduction in violent crime.
Now in the backstretch of a first term as Maryland's governor, O'Malley seems to employing the same strategy again. In spades.
Drawing little public attention so far, a small team of aides has developed a list of 15 major goals -- and several dozen smaller ones -- intended to guide the remainder of O'Malley's term, as well as a second one if he wins reelection next year.
Among the targets: Increase public transit ridership by 10 percent a year. (That would require doubling the growth seen last year, when high gas prices led many people to abandon their cars.) Reduce violent crime against women and children by 25 percent by 2012. (That would require recent trends to accelerate and continue for several years.) And end childhood hunger in Maryland by 2015. (No one seems to know exactly how that would be measured.)
Other goals provide aggressive benchmarks for education, the environment and health care.
O'Malley's office is preparing to publicize the efforts in coming days. But the loftiness of the goals and the motives behind them are already sparking debate as O'Malley prepares to stand for reelection.
"To establish goals for government is a good thing to do, as is trying to use them to drive policy, but these strike me as so exceptionally high and not achievable that it could be the kind of thing that makes people jaded about politics," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
In an interview, O'Malley described the goals as "pretty ambitious but not unachievable," and he said that is by design.
"If by putting my political neck on the line we're able to get halfway to these goals, it will be far more progress than the previous administration," O'Malley said. "The politically safe thing to do is never have any goals, because then you can't be judged or measured by them. That's the risk we take."
The team of aides that developed the targets and is responsible for pushing state agencies to meet them has been dubbed the Governor's Delivery Unit. That concept was borrowed from former British prime minister Tony Blair. Last summer, O'Malley heard the former head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit speak at a conference. But O'Malley watchers say the new unit is consistent with O'Malley's past initiatives.
"Governor O'Malley has invested heavily in the use of statistical measures to attack problems," said Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. "It's really part of his governing identity."
As mayor, O'Malley developed CitiStat, which required agency heads to appear regularly before O'Malley and top aides to justify statistical trends, such as overtime pay, response time for filling potholes and the number of garbage trucks in need of repair. As buzz about CitiStat grew in governing circles, a parade of visitors from across the country and abroad came to visit the sessions.
O'Malley has sought to replicate the program on the state level with the creation of StateStat. He said the Delivery Unit will complement that effort: While StateStat is being used to "measure progress," the Delivery Unit, headed by a longtime aide, will "drive progress," O'Malley said.
Progress will have to accelerate markedly for O'Malley to meet some of his goals.
O'Malley, for example, has set a goal of reducing violent crime statewide by 10 percent a year. Violent crime has been dropping in Maryland in recent years but not nearly at that rate. In 2007, there was a 5.4 percent decline, according to the FBI. The year before, the drop was 3.2 percent.
Aides say such targets help shape O'Malley's priorities in a number of ways. During this year's legislative session, for example, O'Malley pushed a pair of bills designed to make it easier for judges to confiscate firearms from domestic abusers. Those laws, aides say, should help achieve the goal of reducing violent crime against women and children by 25 percent by 2012. During the bill-signing ceremony, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) said the administration is planning additional services aimed at reducing domestic violence.
Matthew Joseph, executive director of Maryland-based Advocates for Children and Youth, said he was heartened to learn that two of O'Malley's goals, concerning childhood hunger and infant mortality, dovetail with his group's agenda.
"The assumption is, if you're on the list, that issue is going to get a lot of attention from the governor," Joseph said.
But Joseph said the administration's strategies for achieving its goals are far more important than the goals themselves. He pointed to O'Malley's January 2008 announcement of a campaign to add 1,000 foster homes in Maryland by 2010. As of March, the state was 735 homes short, according to statistics kept by the Department of Human Resources, which runs the program. Nancy Lineman, a DHR spokeswoman, said the agency is reevaluating its goal, in part because fewer children are entering the child welfare system and in need of foster homes. She said several local social services departments have met their targets.
Joseph said the real problem is that the administration did not have a sound strategy to achieve the goal.
"We want them to have ambitious goals, and that's a good thing, but if they don't have a solid plan, it's not credible," Joseph said.
O'Malley aides said the Delivery Unit is developing detailed "action plans" to meet the governor's goals. A draft of the plan for ending childhood hunger includes more than 70 "action steps," including public-information campaigns and changes in rules and procedures for food stamps and other government food programs.
As a candidate for mayor in 1999, O'Malley adopted a goal of reducing the number of homicides to no more than 175 a year in Baltimore, which had recorded more than 300 a year throughout the 1990s. The closest O'Malley came was in 2002, three years into his seven-year tenure, when 253 killings were recorded.
O'Malley acknowledged that the experience made some of his advisers reticent to publicize a new set of goals.
"Because of the political criticism I took for declaring the homicide goal . . . some well-intentioned staff were not as comfortable following my instinct," he said.
He decided to forge ahead anyway.