Who Cares about Data?

We just received notice that the City has received its third Certificate of Excellence awarded by the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Center for Performance Analytics.  I suppose only a city manager’s heart could be warmed by this announcement.  Most of our citizens won’t care that this is our fifth award, which includes two certificates of distinction, for making a commitment to and implementing systematic use of reliable data to improve performance.

Equally important to me is our publishing of this information on the City’s website so that anyone can see it.  I find it satisfying that some of our worst critics rely on the selective use of this information to make their case against one policy or another.  I use it to help determine how we allocate resources and drive improvement in our organization.

We know that if we are spending more on a service or function than other comparable jurisdictions that we should be looking at our practices to see why we are different.  In some cases, the differences can be explained by unique circumstances while in others we may learn that we need to change what we’re doing.  We have a great current example of improving energy efficiency at many our facilities by using some new analytic tools.  Jorge Salinas, our Information Technology Director, has taken responsibility for overseeing this project; but he is quick to point out that most of the work is being done by our facilities maintenance employees.  We are already seeing some significant financial savings with some relatively simple changes, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint.

ICMA has taken a leadership role in promoting standards for the collection and use of data by local governments, and Albany was among the first cities in the nation to be recognized for our work in this area.  The list of cities receiving the award has grown from less than 10 when we first received it to more than 40 last year.  Evidence-based management is not a new idea, but development of national standards for local data collection and use is comparatively new and will require many years to be fully realized.

We now take state and national standards for financial reporting for granted; recognizing that budgets, balance sheets, and other financial statements are essential to honestly and effectively manage resources.  I believe local governments have a similar obligation to collect performance information and report it policy makers and the public.  We are still in the early days of doing this systematically, although I have seen great improvement in recent years.  Unfortunately, some cities that were once leaders in this area, including Eugene and Corvallis, reduced their commitment during the last recession.  I understand this temptation, but I believe the value of good decision-making information generally outweighs the cost of getting it.

Chief Mario Lattanzio and members of the Albany Police Department are proving this point every day.  The Chief has implemented the data-driven CompStat management program, which was created in New York in the 1990s and has been credited with dramatically reducing crime.  I believe we are already starting to see results in Albany.  Reliable data may not give anyone an adrenaline rush, but I think there are many good reasons to care about it.

How Divided Are We?

Iraq’s recent descent into chaos is just another example of people unwilling to accept any compromise in their belief that they are right while others are wrong. The situation is not unique to Iraq or even to a certain part of the world. Fundamental disagreement exists within every society to one degree or another, and what keeps chaos at bay may be a much more delicate balance than we realize.

As important as our military, police, and courts are, what really keeps the peace are the decisions each of us make every day to treat others with respect, avoid violence, obey laws, and generally trust the people around us. No government has a strong enough military or large enough police force to prevent chaos if a big enough group of people decides to create it. Some of us believe that our best defense is to arm ourselves and store food for the coming apocalypse. I believe we are better served by investing in economic opportunity, education, and other programs that promote hope for people of all ages

We often hear that the violence in Iraq is the product of religious divisions that date back to the succession of the prophet Mohammed. I know there is some truth to this observation, but I think the problem is much more complex than an historic theological dispute. The gap between rich and poor is too wide and visible in Iraq, and there are far too many unemployed young men with little hope for a better future. Education, while recovering, was neglected for too long; and the zealots find fertile ground to spread their violent ideology among the ignorant. Add in the widespread availability of weapons plus corrupt political institutions and the formula looks very similar to those that produced similar outcomes in Somalia, Afghanistan, and, to some extent, Syria.

I am probably repeating myself by pointing out that there is great personal freedom in societies governed by anarchy. The downside, of course, is that there is very little security for people or their property. These are particularly bad places for a child, which predicts a particularly bad future for everyone.

I have been trying to decide for a number of years how the divisions within our own society compare to those in some of the more violent places where I’ve lived and worked. We have so much, yet we sometimes seem to lose track of why we do. We have always had political parties, religious differences, racial conflicts, and violent disagreements. Our last civil war was only two lifetimes ago. I believe the answer continues to be investment in making our communities safe, decent places to live, and personal commitment to respecting the rights of others.

Last week I wrote about my granddaughter appearing in the play To Kill a Mockingbird. I have read the book, seen the movie, and been to the play three times, yet only recently realized that its message goes well beyond a powerful statement against racial injustice. The story is also a plea for community, civility, tolerance, and common decency. It may be more timely today than when it was published in 1960, and I wish more people everywhere could see and understand it.

(Grand) Fathers’ Day Wishes

I apologize in advance for using this column to shamelessly promote an event in Salem.  My granddaughter Molly is appearing in the stage version of Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, produced by Salem’s Pentacle Theater through June 21.  Molly is only 10 years old, but she is an accomplished actress playing the lead role of Scout in this really great production of a very moving play.

My wife and I joined my sister and her husband in attending the play a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised by how the play affected me and less surprised at my pride in Molly’s performance.  Molly described the production in a recent radio interview as “super powerful,” and I don’t think I could come up with a more apt summary.  It is, of course, doubly powerful to me because my granddaughter is getting a great opportunity to excel at something she loves.

Molly’s interest in theater has inspired me to attend all of her performances, ranging from backyard productions to highly professional stage shows.  I have enjoyed them all and been reminded once again that these mostly volunteer enterprises enrich our communities and our lives.  Art gives us the chance to understand things we might otherwise miss, and community theater is one way of making art accessible to all of us.

I have also been impressed with the bond that develops among the cast and crew of a stage play.  Molly is playing opposite a Salem attorney of roughly my generation, and it’s obvious they have a high regard for one another.  According to Molly, “He rocks.”  The show’s director didn’t catch my name when we were introduced, so I told her she could just refer to me as Molly’s grandfather.  That remark prompted some high praise for Molly and a glowing assessment of her future.  I share the title of grandfather with my daughter-in-law’s dad, a former Salem city councilor and dedicated Beaver fan, whose pride in Molly clearly rivals mine.  I have been forced to learn tolerance in so many different ways.

 

My sister really enjoyed the play as well, and I think her interest was enhanced when she noticed that one of the cast members had the same name as her high school English teacher.  My sister approached the lady after the show and found that she really was her former teacher.  They shared a brief reunion and summary of their activities over the past 47 years.  Art brings us together in many different ways.

 

I liked this play so much that I’m going to see it again this week, and I would encourage anyone who is still thinking about a Fathers’ Day gift to consider tickets to one of the remaining performances.  Tickets can be purchased online at the Pentacle Theater website and a show has been added on Tuesday, June 17 to accommodate demand. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great learning experience in many different ways.