Measuring Martin O’Malley

Inevitably, Haley Sweetland Edwards’ featured article on Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in the May-June issue of the Washington Monthly is keyed off interest in him (reflecting his own longtime interest) as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee. If Hillary Clinton decides against running in 2016, O’Malley would instantly become a first-tier candidate, and if HRC does run, the declining importance of regional balance as a factor in Veep selections would probably make him a very high running-mate possibility.

But even if O’Malley wasn’t running in the earliest phase of the Invisible Primary, Edwards’ article would be well worth writing and reading: he’s become the unquestioned champion of a cause that at least some progressives consider essential to the long-term battle against a conservative movement dedicated to the disabling of the public sector: demonstrating that government can produce measurable results.

To those who are familiar with this cause–dating back to the Rego initiatives of the Clinton administration–or with its component parts, such as the “PerformanceStat” approach of data-driven management that has been O’Malley’s signature ever since he emulated and then expanded New York’s CompStat system for police force “accountability” as mayor of Baltimore–a lot of what the Maryland governor has done seems old-school and even a bit redundant by now. But for those who aren’t familiar with it–which would include most Americans who don’t live in New York City or Maryland–it’s still a quasi-revolutionary idea, as heretical to the traditional ways of public management as Billy Beane’s data-driven approach to building a baseball team was when he adopted the “Moneyball” philosophy in Oakland. After spending some serious face-time with the governor on the job, Edwards has written the definitive brief description of O’Malley’s use of “metrics” to improve the performance of public agencies in the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland, noting his successes and failures (though arguing the former significantly outweigh the latter).

Edwards leaves little doubt that if he does run for president, O’Malley would campaign on the need for a national version of PerformanceStat–perhaps a “FedStat”–to seek a similar data-driven transformation of the federal bureaucracy. But she also notes that this approach is easiest to engineer at the municipal level of government, with its direct involvement in the delivery of meat-and-potatoes public services. At the state level, and even more emphatically the federal level, where public agencies often do not deliver services at all, instituting data-driven reforms is vastly more complex, and absolutely depends on the vision, skill and determination of the leaders directing the effort.

That’s where O’Malley’s background and personality come into play. I’ll have more to say about Edwards’ portrayal of the Maryland Governor–whose parents half-jokingly celebrated a future presidential campaign at his second birthday party–in another post, when I’ll also talk a little about my own impressions of O’Malley over the years. But in the meantime, I encourage you to make this a conversation by reading Edwards’ fine piece. It’s worthwhile even in the unlikely event that Martin O’Malley never runs for higher office.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.