#MoneyballChat: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's Twitter town hall - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Jan. 16, 2014 11:15 am

#MoneyballChat: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Twitter town hall

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake held a Twitter town hall on Wednesday to answer questions about "data-driven" government. It was a controlled version of an open discussion. Here's what happened.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

(Photo via Twitter)

For about 45 minutes during the Wednesday lunch hour, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake availed herself of social media to speak directly to the citizens of Baltimore. Credit is due for a politician opening herself up to a Twitter roundtable, but this first attempt was more managed than some might have hoped.

During a Twitter town hall that was originally scheduled for just 30 minutes, the mayor took and answered questions using #MoneyballChat about the use of data in daily governance, and whether adherence to numbers produces smarter funding and money management decisions within Baltimore city government. It makes sense, then, that the conversation was arranged by Moneyball for Government, a project of Results for America, a New York-based group that advocates for the usage of data at all levels of U.S government when elected officials make decisions about what to spend money on, how much money to spend and when to spend the money.

(Moneyball, as those with extensive knowledge of baseball and/or Brad Pitt will recall, is a nod to the book-turned-movie about Oakland Athletics’ manager Billy Beane, who used statistical data to build his professional baseball teams to overcome a relatively meager bankroll.)

But while a Twitter town hall generally provides an opportunity for elected officials to step outside the fortress of bureaucracy and allow their constituents fewer barriers through which to launch queries, #MoneyballChat was a controlled one and some of the hardest questions were left on the table.

The discussion, for the most part, was moderated by staff of Moneyball for Government, who also served up the first question, asking Mayor Rawlings-Blake what factors “drove” her to “focus on evidence and data,” to which she spoke about “evidence in decision-making” without getting into the details.

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Granted, the conversation was over a medium built on 140-character-long bursts.

For instance, one question about when “data/research” helped the mayor “change someone’s mind about a policy decision” led to a ho-hum response about “Moneyball” practices shifting funding away from programs that “couldn’t show evidence of effectiveness,” without clarification as to what those programs are.

And the final question, a rather innocuous inquiry into how the mayor overcame her biggest challenges in focusing on data, was delivered by an employee of Civic Enterprises, a Washington-D.C.-based “public policy and strategy firm” that, by the looks of it, had its hands in promoting the chat.

Overall, the discussion didn’t range much into what Baltimore‘s loudest residents on Twitter were most interested in discussing: audits, precisely how the city uses data to make budgeting decisions, and any early results from Balanced Baltimore, the city’s experiment in crowdfunding budget priorities.

In broad terms, here’s what happened during #MoneyballChat:

  • The mayor answered 9 questions.
  • Three of those 9 answered questions came from Twitter users whose bios identified them as being from Baltimore.
  • One Storify wrap-up of the conversation, which gives a decent impression of both the snark and sincerity prevalent during #MoneyballChat, shows that 6 different people asked about audits for city government agencies, a question that was conspicuously untouched despite its being asked multiple times.
  • This reporter’s unmoderated question about how residents’ choices in the Balanced Baltimore budget tool are being incorporated into the city’s budget priorities received a response. (Thank you, mayor.) But we would’ve liked to see Mayor Rawlings-Blake continue to engage us in our follow-up question about an example of one city service people have insisted ought to get more room in the budget.

A question early into the chat about how Mayor Rawlings-Blake is “changing culture” within city government to make room for spending decisions based on data (as opposed to, presumably, hunch or tradition) was met with a response that mentioned outcome budgeting, and then follow-up saying the city’s budgeting process “builds on CitiStat.”

But it bears mentioning that CitiStat, the program vaunted as the numbers-dependent way to dispassionately assess the performance and wastefulness of the city’s police and fire departments, the department of transportation and other city agencies is, at the moment, without a leader. Last week news broke that Mayor Rawlings-Blake asked now-former director Chad Kenney to take a different job within city government. (He declined and resigned instead.)

Meanwhile CitiStat data, while available on the OpenBaltimore data portal, comes in summarized PDF reports, and not in spreadsheets displaying raw numbers, the preferred format of developers and data mongers. What’s more, a search through the CitiStat data on OpenBaltimore shows that the latest report was uploaded in July 2013. (Not to mention that when Kenney was first appointed director of CitiStat in August 2012, “not a single report had been posted during Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s tenure as mayor.”)

Credit where credit is due, however.

By the looks of it, it appears this #MoneyballChat was motivated by a report on “Geek Cities” published by Results for America and The Bridgespan Group. Baltimore was highlighted twice: once, blandly, for its outcome-budgeting process, and again for its B’More for Healthy Babies initiative, which has led to a drop in the city’s infant mortality rate, though that rate is still 70 percent higher than the national average of 6.15 deaths per 1,000 live births. The mayor noted that data indicating the program’s effectiveness led the city to keep funding it since its inception in 2009.

Although, the question that preceded that answer came from an egg who, if we’re to believe the coyness of its Twitter username, lives in Brooklyn.

To be clear, Technical.ly Baltimore is in favor of these sorts of overtures by elected officials, and we’d like to see the mayor participate in more Twitter town halls. (It’s for this reason that we included the questions we asked the mayor at the end of this post.) Furthermore, Baltimore has been promoted nationally for embracing open data. Strides have been made where open data is concerned, including what was perhaps the most relevant of 2013: the naming of the city’s first chief data officer, Heather Hudson.

But this first version was more controlled than an open social media roundtable might be.

It takes a bit of bravery to open oneself up for an unmitigated Twitter talk, especially with constituents as hardy as Baltimore’s, who want to, and will, ask tough questions. But that’s why they call politics hardball — not Moneyball.

Questions Technical.ly Baltimore asked during #MoneyballChat:

  • What’s the protocol to convert CitiStat data now in PDF form into raw numbers in CSV files & accessible on OpenBaltimore?
  • How are residents’ choices in the ‘Balanced Baltimore’ budget tool being incorporated into the city’s budget priorities?
  • Of people who’ve done Balanced Baltimore, what’s one service they’ve said they’d like to see receive more money?
  • What’s one example where open, accessible data influenced a city agency’s spending decisions?
  • How do city agencies use the data provided on OpenBaltimore to coordinate their budget priorities and decisions?
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