February 26, 2009
Mayor Tom Menino made some of the city's performance statistics public last week with a new website, but his election-year challengers are already giving the report card a failing grade.
"It reminds me of the old Soviet Union five-year plans," said candidate Kevin McCrea, a South End businessman. "It's amazing how they always hit their target every single year until they collapsed. This isn't what an accountant would say is real financial performance data that could be evaluated in an objective manner."
Menino, who has yet to officially begin a re-election campaign, launched the Boston About Results (BAR) site to increase transparency according to Lisa Signori, the city's chief financial officer. Quarterly reports will be posted for the police, fire, library, school and other departments.
The one-page score sheets provide statistics on budget spending and services for FY 2006-2008 and year-to-date numbers for FY 2009. A second page explains the data.
All three announced mayoral candidates are criticizing the reports for providing too little information.
Asked if he thought the data was handpicked, McCrea said there wasn't enough information to tell.
Sam Yoon, mayoral candidate and city councilor, said they are.
"I see a lot of public relations in the presentation, but not a lot of policy," he said.
Signori said Boston About Results is a new way the city can share the data it uses to guide policy through its performance-based management system.
"It shows key performance indicators for each department," she said. "The data is in one organized dashboard, designed to be user friendly for people who do not want to flip through a 1,000-page budget document."
The website does have links to a more detailed FY 09 budget report for each department. Mayoral candidate and City Councilor Michael Flaherty said the full report needs to be updated regularly to adequately track progress.
The BAR reports pales in comparison to the effectiveness of an already established system called CitiStat, according to Flaherty. The program, currently in use by locations such as Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Somerville, analyzes city program and service data and helps identify areas of underperformance and opportunities for savings.
Baltimore has saved hundreds of millions with the program, according to reports.
"Five years ago, I called on this administration to adopt CitiStat," said Flaherty. "Five years later they rolled out a watered-down version called Boston About Results where they grade themselves. This administration thinks by selecting convenient stats to post online, they are being accountable and transparent to residents."
Signori denied the data is sugar-coated. She pointed out a number of categories are marked in red and not meeting targets.
For example, the community center report details the number of activities organized, participants and the target goals. To date, the department has exceeded its goal for city-wide athletic events though it is behind in the total number of community center visits.
Flaherty mentioned disability sick time, towing, school busing and revenue as examples of data CitiStat would analyze that Boston About Results does not. The CitiStat system includes a request line for residents.
"It drives the efficiency of services up, while driving the costs of providing those services down," he said. "It holds managers accountable, tracks phone calls and forces the city to take direct responsibility for things happening that are good and not so good."
Yoon believes the current system is not truly performance-based management.
"The numbers should actually drive changes," he said. "They should have a tight connection with the budget process. In our city, the mayor presents City Council with the budget as a final product. It's a broken system."
Yoon said he would only see the BAR reports as a step in the right direction if he knew they would influence decisions, and if residents were involved in those decisions.
"Otherwise, it really is a political move," he said.
McCrea agreed the report should be used for a more inclusive policy process.
"We need to bring people on board so they believe they are part of making this city great," he said, mentioning better schools and clean streets and parks as areas that could benefit from greater attention in the reports.
The BAR reports should be looked at as a work in progress, according to Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog agency. He expects the number of departments covered and the data presented to expand.
"I think it's a really important step forward," he said. "I don't think this will be the same in five years."
Tyler said he wanted more detail in the reports, but is confident the information provided will still lead to changes.
"We certainly will be evaluating what we see and making suggestions," he said.
McCrea said Menino's initiative needs more detail to be effective. He focused on the parks department and pointed out that it tracks street tree planting, but not park trees.
"It's got some nice pie charts. It says how much money we spent, but it doesn't say how many tons of grass seed we used. It's like they just threw a dart against the wall and picked a category. Would a million dollar company put out a performance report and fit it on less than one page of paper? It's crazy. It's an insult to intelligent Bostonians who want an analysis of how their city is working."