A wave of recently-elected leaders in Maryland is pushing to modernize services. Getting new tools in place is not just a matter of technology, but also leadership.
At Baltimore Innovation Week 2021, Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry, Del. Stephanie Smith (D, Baltimore) and Del. Brooke Lierman (D, Baltimore) gathered for a conversation moderated by Jess Gartner, CEO of Baltimore edfintech company Allovue, about how Maryland can innovate in the financial offices of government.
Bringing change starts with voters, who ultimately elect leaders to office. Henry, who was elected in late 2020 as head of the city’s fiscal office, said the push from Baltimore city residents for concrete examples of change after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 is a big reason he was able to overcome a 25-year incumbent comptroller. This need from residents to see benefits and change in the status quo from their politicians is leading to new faces in office.
“Before, if you were an incumbent you were just going to get put back in,” said Henry. “Now, the expectation is, if you can point to how you’re still making things better, accomplishments, how you’ve helped the people who elected you, people will give you a return trip.”
If an incumbent is resting on their laurels in Baltimore post-2015 and isn’t meeting voters’ expectations for positive change, the voters will be more comfortable going with a new candidate. This dynamic led to heavy turnover in City Council seats in 2016, and 2020, along with Henry’s win.
For Lierman, who represents South and Southeast Baltimore’s District 46 in state government, the pandemic is that watershed moment on a state level that equates to voters wanting the change that was evident in election results to manifest.
“In a post-pandemic Maryland, every statewide elected official has to be all in on insuring that we’re building better,” said Lierman. “Back to normal is not an option.”
That sets the stage on which a push for modernization can follow. There can be tools that collect spending data and make it transparent, like online portals for taxes, or Baltimore’s recently-launched Open Checkbook software to track city spending. It can also lead to innovative ideas such as municipal banks or publicly-run broadband. On the latter, a city leadership position on broadband and digital equity, a statewide broadband office and federal funding to explore options are all now in place. This comes after the city and state’s existing digital divide became a particularly acute issue at a time of remote work, and leaders looked to advance new approaches.
There can also be an opportunity to bring long-standing proposals back to the fore. Henry recounted the novel idea of municipal insurance for residents of Baltimore — an idea that was floated by local politicians once upon a time.
“Ultimately we have responsibility as elected officials to continuously innovate to make sure that we’re the best stewards of every tax dollar we receive,” said Smith, who represents Northeast Baltimore’s District 45.
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.