What O'Malley Believes He Can Do that Clinton Can't

Former mayor and governor pitches data-driven, can-do liberal leadership.

DES MOINES, Iowa—Martin O'Malley wants to slip the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton's grip. That will come in time, he says, but for now O'Malley's hands are full. His fingers splay across three bottles at a busy diner, where he's using mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce to show me how the silos of 20th-century government must be transformed into a flatter, more transparent system.

"You've got the police department, housing department, health department, sanitation. You could spend a lifetime trying to connect up and down these silos of human endeavor," says the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor. "But if the executive insists "¦ that the database of each of these silos lands on the same map, then the layers become pretty visible to everyone."

O'Malley is pitching himself as a get-it-done, data-driven chief executive who helped enact liberal programs in Maryland, including same-sex marriage, a higher minimum wage, in-state tuition and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, and an end to the death penalty.

By inference, Clinton represents the stale status quo in O'Malley's world—a Democratic icon and trailblazer, of course, but also a centrist and traditional manager, a candidate more likely to be a caretaker president than a transformational leader.

"I mean," he says, drawing a clear but unspoken contrast with Clinton, "it's great to have progressive values and have progressive goals, but it doesn't really amount to a hill of beans if you can't get things done."

O'Malley says he got things done in Baltimore and Annapolis by adopting modern government and leadership techniques (read more here and here). We chatted at length about how those experiences might translate into an O'Malley presidency. This is an edited transcript.

RF: We're in this huge big pivot in our nation. A huge economic transition that is leaving people behind. Huge technological revolution that is making our lives simpler but much more complicated. Huge social change in how we connect with one another and communicate. And huge institutional decline both in the public's trust in all institutions, except maybe the military, and their ability to adapt. Certainly government and even charities and nonprofits, churches "¦

O'MALLEY: Anything that looks like an institution "¦

RF: This is obviously something you dealt with in Baltimore and in Maryland. Now you want to deal with it on a (larger) level as president. What are the leadership qualities that are going to be unique to our time? And what has to be done to reform government, to change government, to make it more adaptive and relevant?

O'MALLEY: As I've traveled around over the last couple of years, I've noticed the key things, and you've seen these too. The big generational shift in attitudes. You know, if I'd have to boil them down to three things, I would say that people are finally discarding the story of trickle-down economics, consolidation of wealth and power, growth for growth's sake. I mean, 80% of us are making less now than we were 12 years ago. It's a realization that what we've been doing for the last thirty years hasn't worked.

[His breakfast is served: microwaved scrambled eggs. O'Malley looks disappointed. "Is that the only eggs they have?"]

O'MALLEY: Okay, the other thing I'm seeing is, I mean that people generally feel better about how their cities are being run than they do 15 years ago. Cities have become much better run. They are performance-measured, they have become much more personally responsive. Mayors have been graced with this new way of governing.

RF: What is that new way of governing?

O'MALLEY: And that new way of governing is fundamentally entrepreneurial. Ask the question, "What works." They are willing to be open and transparent in the operations of government. Mayors never enjoyed an advantage in terms of knowing things six months before citizens "¦. Either the alley is clean or the alley is dirty. And, either they come and fix the potholes or they don't. It's not an abstraction. Leadership is not an abstraction as a mayor.

RF: It's become tough in Washington.

O'MALLEY: Yeah, the further away you get from the direct service delivery, the more it can become an abstraction. Which is the challenge of leadership today. It is to explain and to help us to understand the connection between the choices we make and the results we achieve.

With regard to young people, and with people under 40, a lot of us baby boomers were told that the way to succeed in life is to specialize and separate from others. And younger people believe just the opposite "¦. And you see them reflecting this (trend) in their desire to live in cities, provided that their cities are better governed and safer. Baltimore "¦ achieved the fourth biggest increase in young population of any major city in America over these last four or five years "¦

So all three of those shifts (reflect) a new way of governing that is fundamentally entrepreneurial, by asking the question, "What works?" it also operates by common platform. Open architecture that everyone can see. It embraces new technologies like the Internet and GIS (Government Information Systems) to make open what works. And, it incorporates and actually welcomes citizens' input. I don't know if there is a term for it yet.

RF: I've used the phrase hacking.

O'MALLEY: Crowdsourcing. I mean, I think we're just using new technologies to make our government more open and transparent and performance management.

RF: We don't have a lot of time. Give me an example in Baltimore or in Maryland where you redeployed that.

O'MALLEY: Well, on a very mundane level: When I ran in 1999, we had become the most violent and addicted and abandoned city in North America. More population loss even than Detroit (lost) in the 30 years prior, as a percentage. Part of what we had lost was faith in one another and there was a sinking feeling that our city had become ungoverned "¦

We had to restore belief in one another that our problems were not larger than we were, but we also had to restore people's faith that their government could actually function and perform and deliver results. None more important than making their city safer "¦

When William Donald Schaefer accused our administration of having no vision, we responded with a 48-hour pothole guarantee "¦ And people started calling. And I'll be damned, the crews rose to the occasion and 98 percent of time we hit the guarantee. Neighbors talk to neighbors: "They filled my pothole in 48 hours. I actually got a courteous call instead of some disciplinary problem they put answering customer service calls."

So that's one little example. It used to be that in order to get a pothole filled, you called your three council-people, tell each of them you're counting on them and that they are your favorite. And then you'd call your council president, you'd tell her you don't like the mayor, you're counting on her to get it done. Then you'd call the mayor and tell him the council president never delivers, you love the mayor. Then you'd call your Uncle Joe who used to work with a guy named Bob who works at transportation and your brother Pat who used to date a girl named Jean who works at transportation and then you'd hope that one of those would make it upstream to spawn to fix that pothole.

We changed that. And that's what mayors all across America have done. Eighteen of the top 20 cities of America offer some sort of 3-1-1 system on the front end of city services and some sort of performance management on the back end that tracks the delivery "“ the outputs "“ of those services "¦

Then we took that to the next level in our state government. For the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, we called it BayStat "¦ And we used it for everything we did. Not only for reducing wait times at the Motor Vehicle Administration, but also for reducing nitrogen phosphorous and sediment pollution of the four major sources of the tributary waters of the Chesapeake Bay. We did it on recidivism, re-entry. We did it for vulnerable kids, child protective services.

RF: How does it translate to the national level? It's one thing to do it in a small state and a big city. But it's a big ship to turn around with a lot of it in silos that would need to be blown up, right?

O'MALLEY: It's not so much a blowing them up, it's the matter of making them land on the same platform.

RF: What do you mean by that?

O'MALLEY: [He picks up the bottles] If this is the map of your city or your state or your county or your country and all of these are different departments of your government, I mean you could spend a lifetime trying to connect up and down these various [departments]. You've got the police department, housing, health department, sanitation. You could spend a lifetime trying to connect up and down these silos of human endeavor. But if the executive insists, given the new technologies like GIS, that the "¦ database of each of these silos lands on the same map, then the layers become pretty visible to everyone. You can see who else was on the field running plays, where and how all of this has worked "¦

RF: How do you make that work on the federal level?

O'MALLEY: People are the same at any level. You insist on stuff. You have to know what the important goals are. You have to create a compelling scoreboard that everybody sees on a common platform.

RF: Where citizens can see "¦ how success is being measured?

O'MALLEY: You've got to have that. Like (Michigan Gov. Rick) Snyder, who's big on dashboards. We had dashboards too. Not only did we have dashboards, we published delivery plans so people could see what we were doing and the benchmarks for when we would accomplish things "¦

RF: Maybe I'm getting too much in the weeds here, but if you used potholes as a brilliant way to make small things represent big possibilities [in Maryland], what would one of your early victories be in the federal government?

O'MALLEY: Wow. Now you're getting ahead of me.

RF: Well, you've got to be thinking, what is the national version of a pothole?

O'MALLEY: Wow. The Washington version of a pothole "¦ Well, certainly the renewable energy front. I think having a jobs agenda that's a match for the climate challenge, and metrics that tell you whether you're getting there or not. From building a renewable grid to getting more solar on the grid and other renewables on the grid. And certainly an agenda for cities.

RF: Is Washington harder to measure, and to be transparent, than filling a pothole [in Maryland]?

O'MALLEY: Sure. There are very few things that are quite as direct service as filling a pothole. That doesn't mean things can't be measured. I mean there're lots of goals throughout our federal government, but there are very few people in our federal government that know what the big goals are. What the priorities are "¦

The great variable in all of this is executive commitment. Only the executive can narrow down the goal and create a compelling story "“ can insist on regular meetings among stakeholders that create a cadence and accountability. Only the executive can insist that there're responsibilities assigned to the leading actions that drive you through goals. And only the executive can keep that sort of battle rhythm at the center of what technology affords now by way of performance management, openness and transparency, that there's an ever greater need for that in the White House "¦.

RF: Can you draw a direct contrast between your experience and Secretary Clinton's?

O'MALLEY: Can I? Sure. We have very different backgrounds. I was a big city mayor for seven years. And I was governor of a state for eight years. And Secretary Clinton's background is as a legislator as a United States senator before she became secretary of State. So a very different background.

RF: Which background is best suited to a new kind of leadership?

O'MALLEY: I believe the more entrepreneurial executive leadership is what's needed for these times and that's what the country believes as well. Two phrases I hear: "Getting things done" and "new leadership," and I hear them everywhere I go all across the country "¦.

RF: I'll end it with this, we started by saying that people right now don't trust institutions. How do we get people to trust the institution of government again?

O'MALLEY: People don't trust their government when it doesn't work. They do trust it when it does. That's why you see people moving back to cities "¦

RF: Hillary Clinton is an institution. She's an icon of the way government is working now. And the way politics is run now. Is that now something that you could use as a wedge against her [by saying], "She's an institution, I'm not. She's Washington, I'm not. She's politics, I'm not."

O'MALLEY: Well, I think the distinctions will become apparent. I don't wake up any morning thinking I'm running against anyone. I wake up in the morning feeling a responsibility and an opportunity to heal our democracy, heal our politics and make our government work—and to do it on a very large scale at a time when that message, and those actions, and that leadership is very, very needed.