Beth Blauer is director of the Maryland Executive Department’s StateStat office. In that role, she oversees Maryland’s much-praised efforts to manage the state through widely disseminated performance measures. This was modeled, to some extent, on ground-breaking efforts in Baltimore, when Governor Martin O’Malley was mayor there.
As in Washington and a few other states, Maryland has connected its tracking of stimulus dollars to other performance reporting mechanisms. In a move that makes good sense to us, it launched its stimulus website on the back of the work it had already done with StateStat – and Blauer was put in charge. She also became, in her words, the “de facto stimulus czar.” Largely as a result of the work done in the past, the online stimulus material was ranked as best in the country in Good Jobs First’s evaluation of state stimulus websites.
We thought it might be interesting to hear what Blauer had to say about this work, and she was kind enough to spend a chunk of time chatting. Following some excerpts from our conversation.
Q. Maryland’s stimulus tracking was top of the pack in the Good Jobs First evaluation. What separates Maryland from other states, in your view?
BB: A lot of states are struggling to bridge the gap between accountability with the financial data and the need for accountability and transparency on a management level. We had this highly scrutinized accountability and performance measurement program in place already. So, we were able to immediately gear up.
Q. In what ways have you linked the spending of stimulus dollars in Maryland to program results?
BB: As much as possible, we’ve connected the tracking of the stimulus dollars with the performance information we have through StateStat. I’m director of StateStat and the de facto stimulus czar. It’s useful to have the same person have both these responsibilities because they’re both concerned with performance and reporting. We want to use this information so we can make the right choices of where to spend the money and we want to use the data on a management level.
The Governor lives and breathes StateStat and he’s looking at the map that shows stimulus activity all the time. I think that’s the most important message – if you don’t have your leaders buying in to it and heavily relying on the tools, you’re not going to have a tool that’s fully used.
The Governor was very interested in the creation of the map. He was sitting next to me and involved down to the choices of the icons. He wanted the map to show more than just the distribution of dollars, he wanted it tied to performance measurement. That’s the principle. He gets it.
Q. States are required to track the jobs that are being funded with the stimulus dollars. What are some of the other ways you’re tracking the use of the stimulus dollars on your website?
BB: We’ve been measuring how quickly our contracts are going out to bid and we’re looking at the percentage of minority business enterprises that are getting our Recovery Act contracts. We’re not relenting on that. We have a goal of 25 percent.
On weatherization, we wanted to connect the weatherization program with the state’s energy assistance program. We’re making it a goal to prioritize the people who get weatherization money, by looking for those who are also receiving cash assistance from the state to help pay energy bills. That way the state’s costs will go down when individual utility costs drop. So, we’ll track who gets the service and we’ll track the impact that has on energy bills. I’m working out how to depict this on the map without having to go down to the individual house level.
We’re also tracking the number of people who are going through weatherization training, so they can work in those jobs.
Q. A lot of states are now using the same map that you’re using. How did that happen?
BB: We worked with ESRI, a company that specializes in geographic information systems, to create the tools under the condition that they’d share it with other states. We worked very hard to develop it. Now there are over 20 other states with the exact same map
But that doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily linked to performance. Washington State has some performance linkages and Massachusetts is working on it. New York City is doing a great job.
Q. Are there areas in which you think Maryland has gone beyond other states?
BB: We’re the only state right now that’s extensively using needs data. For example, we had to make decisions about where transit money was going. If you look at our map under transportation, you can see we’ve color coded the areas in the state where there are high percentages of individuals who don’t have motor vehicles. Those are the spots that may have more need of transit dollars. We knew that Baltimore would be one of those areas, but the map also shows us that there was a justification for Garrett County, in the western part of the state, getting some new buses.
Q. What do you have planned going forward?
BB: For every single funding area, I have a wish list of performance metrics. I’d like to continue to draw connections, as we did with weatherization and energy assistance. I’d like to think about how we can speed up some of the milestones and goals that we’ve had. For example, with an infusion of dollars going to water projects, can we create a faster-paced change in the health of the Chesapeake Bay?
Q. What’s the biggest challenge for you with tying Recovery Act dollars to performance?
BB: This is hard, because it’s a fast-paced program and the majority of the dollars that are coming to the state are for programs that are very well developed, like the increase in the Medicaid match.
The biggest struggle I have in mapping the recovery data is trying to isolate the direct impact that the federal investment has had.
Q. Do you have any disappointments with what you’ve done so far?
A. I’ve been surprised that there hasn’t been more public engagement. Every place on our map, we have a way that a user can directly communicate with us. I was looking forward to that public engagement as part of the transparency. But we’re not getting the response we were expecting. That’s an area in which we can really strengthen our program.