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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen10:00 pmJan 15, 20140

Hard questions ignored during mayor’s online chat on data

On sacked CitiStat chief, lack of departmental audits: crickets

Above: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, preparing to plunge today into the shark tank of Twitter for a live #MoneyballChat about data in city government.

Civic-minded members of Baltimore’s Twitter-sphere got excited about a rare opportunity today – a live chat on Twitter with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on the use of data to improve city government.

But ignoring queries about the lack of city audits and other data-related problems, the mayor addressed only a couple of  questions that weren’t posed either by the event’s organizers or by people from policy or public relations firms outside of the city.

“Baltimore peeps, trainwreck in progress,” tech entrepreneur Dave Troy tweeted midway through. (Troy shared this Storify version.)

After it became clear that only seemingly scripted, softball questions were going to be answered, Travis (@unraptured) mocked the process with his own sarcastic question: “Why are you awesome and how will you continue to be awesome?”

In the end, @MayorSRB declared the odd exercise organized by something called “Moneyball4Gov” a success, and left the arena this way:

Thx evry1 who joined #MoneyballChat. So many awesome Qs—srry couldn’t get to them all. More #outcome #budgeting info: http://budget.baltimorecity.gov/

Thx again @Moneyball4Gov @Results4America for facilitating #MoneyballChat. Proud to be a #GeekCity—committed to cont investing in what works

Here’s a link to “Moneyball for Government,” which describes itself as “a project of ‘Results for America’.”

Hopeful Questioners

Despite a strong streak of cynicism, the Baltimore crowd had gotten itself pretty worked up this morning. The #MoneyballChat hashtag had been abuzz long before the noon conversation was to begin, so eager was the crowd to tackle all the nagging data-related questions out there, related to:

City departmental audits not being audited for decades; the recent dumping of the Citi-Stat director; the fact that the old head of the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (who departed under a cloud) left behind a half-finished upgrade of the city government website that is being scrapped and the project re-bid.

Could the mayor possibly be planning to address these long festering problems in true democratic web-centric fashion in front of, potentially, anyone in the world with a Twitter account?

And was she prepared for snark this crowd was likely to unleash once she sat down at the keyboard and said, “Let’s begin?”

The premise pretty much opened her up to questions about every broken thing in city government. That’s because data are numbers – and embarrassingly grim numbers can be attached to just about any city problem, such as the number of murdered residents so far this year.

“Alright Baltimore do-gooder trolls,” Chris Merriam tweeted, “it’s your time to shine!”

But their hard questions, whether asked snarky or straight, were ignored – including many people who asked about the lack of auditing.

Apparently rising to the mayor’s defense on audits, a Baltimore Sun reporter offered this link, saying “FWIW, here’s the list of audits the comptroller’s office has done in Baltimore recently.”

(The list is not much of a defense, though. It’s got audits conducted of primarily small government entities and projects, like the “Police Car Rental Fund” and the “Parking Utilities Fund,” while the main city departments – Public Works, Transportation, Police, Fire, Baltimore Development Corp. – remain glaringly unaudited.)

“How can Baltimore make intelligent decisions without financial statements or audits of most city departments?” said Dave Troy, one of numerous people who raised that issue.

Also ignored were several straightforward questions about the city’s “Balanced Budget” tool, such as this by Andrew Zaleskie, of Technically Baltimore: “How are residents’ choices in the ‘Balanced Baltimore’ budget tool being incorporated into the city’s budget priorities?”

And several people chimed in on this question: “What’s the protocol to convert CitiStat data now in PDF form into raw numbers in CSV files & accessible on OpenBaltimore?” Mike (@mikesbadtweets) wondered “Who decides the metrics for whether a city service works or doesn’t?” Troy asked “Will you consider reaching out to the data-conscious participants in this chat to form an advisory committee?”

Softballs from Insiders

So what questions did she answer? Several were asked by the organizers themselves, as in this from @Moneyball4Gov: “@MayorSRB first up from us, what drove you to focus on evidence and data?”

Her answer: “Baltimore’s ppl deserve to knw their tax $’s are funding prgrms w/proven results”

Another mayoral answer was presumably to a question from the conversation’s Boston-based moderator Rebecca Shah of  D.C.-based Data Quality Campaign:

“@Rebecca_Shah We’ve been budgeting for outcomes for 4 years, requires agencies to justify funding w/results,” the mayor told her.

Another one that originated many miles from Baltimore came from Tess Mason-Elder (on Twitter @tmasonelder of Chevy Chase), a policy analyst with Civic Enterprises, a D.C.-based “public policy and strategy firm.”

Mason-Elder wanted to know: “What have been the biggest challenges of focusing on data and evaluation? How did you overcome them?”

“Lack of available quality data – expensive and time-consuming to gather,” the mayor confided. “We’re doing more in-house rsrch. Connecting exstng City rsrcs to svcs to ensure data driven decisions.”

Another question she answered was directed at @MDRC_News, another out-of-town policy group based in New York City and Oakland, Calif.

And The Local Tweeps?

She did answer one question from Travis Official ™(aka @unraptured): “How can we expect to attract new residents to our city when the only options presented are cutting services?”

“Outcome Budgeting has enhanced & protected funding for svcs that WORK. Visit http://balancedbudget.baltimorecity.gov to see how,” Rawlings-Blake answered.

Another Baltimore-based person, John Waire, asked, “how do you balance gut instinct and #data?” He got a three-tweet answer:

• “We have “budget enhancements” that we invest in promising but unproven initiatives.” (1/3)
• “Encourage innovation by prvdng opp’ty to try new things, but those prgrms need to prove results going fwd.” (2/3)
• “e.g. @BaltimoreMOED Commty Job Hubs-currently being eval’d. And check out @BmoreFodCzar & Waste to Wealth.” (3/3)

“How do city agencies use the data provided on @OpenBaltimore to coordinate their budget priorities and decisions?” was a local question posed by Andrew Zaleski of the tech-news website Technically Baltimore.

The mayoral reply: “Baltimore I revw the info along w/ feedbk frm @BaltimoreBudget & agencies to ensure decisions in line w/ citizen priorities.”

Left Unanswered

If readers find the bland, bureaucratic answers delivered in Twitter snippets today unsatisfying, take heart. Wit, passion and interesting information and ideas came through in the questions and comments by the local Tweeters, unanswered though they were.

Here are a few of them. They are not listed in any order and they’re only numbered because we thought that might make it easier for commenters to reference their favorites. (Feel free to point out any good ones we missed.)

1. “How can Baltimore make intelligent decisions without financial statements or audits of most city departments?” –Dave Troy

2. “What is Anthony Batts’s on base percentage?” –Generic White Beardo

3. “How will the City work to improve transparency in the operations of United Way and the Baltimore Development Corporation?” –Dennis the Cynic

4. “How effective can you be with data if you can’t even insure every member of @baltimorepolice has voicemail?” –Dennis the Cynic

5. “Most city agencies haven’t been audited in decades. Rec & Parks audit is a year + overdue.” –Chris Merriam

6. “How will United Way be held accountable for the “mismanagement” of money they were paid to manage?” –altermondeleo

7. “When @MayorSRB says they are using data to improve city, she does realize that city goes north of Fayette & west of MLK?” –Timothy Sutton

8. “When will BCDOT be sharing road planning & engineering docs with public?” –Chris Merriam

9. “Wasn’t using data to track success supposed to be the point of Citistat? Just curious.” –Dennis the Cynic

10. “Shouldn’t the city consider executive-level (read: Mayor, Council, CEO of Schools) pay freezes to help save money?” –Travis @unraptured

11. “There is rampant overuse and abuse of police overtime. How are we using data to bring that to national norms?” –Dave Troy

12. “I’ll ask again. @MayorSRB, when will city agencies get regular, independent audits like they do in every healthy city?” –Chris Merriam

13. “How is your pocket protector going to hit homeruns for my team– err, curb the rash of violence in our city?” -Generic White Beardo

14. “Is there an opportunity to make CitiStat better or hire the next CitiStat director?” -Dave Troy

15. “@MayorSRB responding only to tweeps in NYC :-/” -@altermondeleo

16. “Not totally true. I’m in Boston. :)” – Rebecca Shah

17. “What’s the protocol to convert CitiStat data now in PDF form into raw numbers in CSV files & accessibile on OpenBaltimore?” -Andrew Zaleskie

18. “Why did any of us, my goofy ass included, expect real engagement w/mayor today?” -Generic White Beardo

19. “Why are you awesome and how will you continue to be awesome?” –Travis @unraptured

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