Sunday, October 23, 2005

Information is Power

Matthew E. Kahn over at Environmental and Urban Economics has an interesting piece lifted from the NY Times on Information and Urban Problem Solving in NYC. From the article:

Mr. Bloomberg exercises control over the city much like Mel Karmazin, the former Viacom chief, famously did at his company: by closely monitoring the numbers produced by a team of star department heads who are free to run their agencies as they see fit so long as they meet strict production targets.

It is a strategy grounded in his experience in the business world. Mr. Bloomberg spent 15 years on Wall Street with Salomon Brothers, working his way from a $9,000-a-year position in its bank vault to a partner in charge of running the firm's information systems department. Pushed out of the firm in 1981, he then earned billions by using his $10 million severance to create a machine that compiled and analyzed real-time data from the financial markets to help traders gain an edge.
As mayor he has tried create a similar system from which to govern. Data analysis is religion for Mr. Bloomberg, and numbers are the lifeblood of his administration. They drive policy rather than just track progress.

It was in large part in the pursuit of more city data that Mr. Bloomberg created the 311 help line. It provides one-stop shopping for people seeking information about everything from parking rules to trash pickups. But perhaps more significant, residents' grievances on the line are also stored in a database so the city can immediately identify a festering problem area, and react.

Linda Gibbs, Mr. Bloomberg's homeless services commissioner, said she began the first citywide census of homeless people on the streets this year guided by the mayor's results-based approach. The census provoked serious debate within the administration, she said, because by creating a new set of numbers "you're taking the risk it could go in the wrong direction."
"His reaction was," she said, "you're not going to be able to overcome an issue unless you really understand it."

Ms. Gibbs said that at the height of a homeless crisis in 2003, she presented Mr. Bloomberg with a chart showing some good news: an alarming rise in the number of people in shelters was finally stabilizing. But the mayor was not content, and drew a line pointing downward from the plateau on the chart, saying, "Come back when it looks like that."
An interesting concept this: the anticipatory use of information in public decision making, one that we, as Bureaucrats, don't always think about.

For example: one of the big problems that I personally have is the ability to bring large sets of data together for a given segment of the region. I can say that I'm doing X number of widgets at location Y, but, because of the still arcane system that we use, I'm unable to say much more than that. Tracking large amounts of data, over multiple data types, requires a lot of staff time and effort. Unfortunately, that's the kind of information that we, the policy makers, need to have to make well informed decisions.

Unfortunately, without the data to back up proposed courses of action, we're often left to the whims of the political leaders who can only make uninformed, or worse, badly informed decisions. [Of course, that assumes that politics actually plays no role in political decisions, a proposition that we know is a falacy.]

I long for a good regression analysis... hell, I long for good data.

No comments: