Prince George's Co. Top Performance Tips
February 15, 2018 by
Photo credit: Mary Cullen/Flickr
Since 2012, Prince George's County Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) sought to move at-risk neighborhoods to a more stable place, with the dual goals of improving quality of life and reducing crime.
TNI grew out of the short-term, police department-led program, established in response to a summertime crime wave. It was only slated to run for a few months. But, it was tremendously successful. Areas within TNI saw crime drop significantly — and, to a lower level than crime rates county-wide. During that brief period, though, it became clear that to further reduce crime levels (as opposed to solving crimes that have already occurred), the county would need to take a more holistic approach, and incorporate agencies beyond the police department to address underlying community-level issues.
Instead of shuttering the initiative in 2012, Prince George's County expanded it to six high-crime areas throughout the county. "When we launched TNI, we had a vision to uplift communities and the people who live in them," said County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III. The efforts are paying off: Since January 2014, violent crime incidents have fallen from 5.35 per thousand residents to 3.46, and the county is on target to hit a goal for 2021 of 3.3 incidents per thousand residents.
As you might expect from such a program with a long tenure, the initiative has evolved and grown over the years. Here are 10 tips from Prince George's County:
1. Quick wins encourage community buy in early on.
Residents of the communities targeted by the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative didn't always have strong, positive associations with Prince George's County agencies. When County Executive Baker went into the community, residents reported fast, effective responses from calls to 911, but slower responses from other agencies, recalls Linda Turner, Program Director of the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative.
How could the county regain the community's trust? TNI targeted quick wins — small yet impactful fixes, like paving potholes and enforcing code violations, that displayed more agencies' responsiveness.
2. Choose the correct indicators — and be willing to let them evolve.
Initially, TNI used nine key performance indicators (KPI) to track progress in the chosen neighborhoods. CountyStat measured and published data around the nine indicators. A few years in, however, it became clear that some indicators weren't a good fit for the program. KPIs like third-grade reading scores presented several problems. First, the data was refreshed annually by the state. Second, it was released by school cluster and not by the Census Tract. And third, the school system, not the county, is 100% responsible for this metric. That makes it hard to see month-to-month or even quarter-to-quarter trends.
So in 2015, TNI reassessed indicators, and expanded to 14 indicators in five key areas — crime, education, blight, health and human services, and economic development — that have a known correlation with crime, property values, or both. Foreclosure rates and crime levels, for instance, tend to go hand-in-hand.
"[Leadership] understood that the important thing is to pick the correct indicators, not picking the correct math or correct area and then rigging your data to fit into it." - Ben Birge, CountyStat Manager, Prince George's County
Once the senior leadership team approved the 14 indicators, Ben Birge, CountyStat Manager for Prince George's County, had his team run the math.
"It was really impressive — the results our model produced were adopted, no questions asked," Birge says. "[Leadership] understood that the important thing is to pick the correct indicators, not picking the correct math or correct area and then rigging your data to fit into it. For someone who does what I do for a living, that was a very gratifying experience. They understood that this is how we know where the challenging areas are — run the numbers, and whatever pops out, that's what we're going with."
The lesson: While your KPIs may need to evolve to successfully measure progress and setbacks, don't retrofit the math to suit your data.
3. Use heatmaps to target high-risk areas.
The neighborhoods initially included in TNI were targeted based on crime levels.
"Three years after the program's launch, we were asked if the TNI map still made sense," Birge says.
To assess, Birge mapped all the indicators, to see if they clustered in certain areas. This hotspot mapping is a variation on how Prince George's County performs police work: Once a problematic area is identified, the county deploys resources to resolve the issue.
4. Allow management structure to evolve as well.
With the new model based on the 14 KPIs, new areas showed up as high-risk, while three areas no longer met the threshold.
"Rather than graduate those areas, we transitioned them over to community leaders to manage with the government available as a resource," says Linda Turner, Program Director, Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative.
The transition took nearly six months, but the community leaders — all volunteers — were well situated to pick up where the county government left off. After four years, they understood how we interacted with each other and what resources were used to address the issues community members were faced with.
In January 2017, TNI began its work in three newly identified areas. The initiative seized the transitional moment to create an updated, sustainable organizational structure — now, there is one program manager for each of the six at-risk areas, responsible for developing a neighborhood action plan full of measurable goals and projects.
"The goal is to report on progress made based on the activities selected," says Turner. "We're also using the 311 data from county's 311 call center. The CountyStat team developed dashboards on our Socrata website, which is very helpful to the community leaders. When [community leaders] call in for service, it documents the service request."
This collection of dashboards allows TNI to review issues and their status. In turn, decisions may be made at an agency-level about what resource allocation is needed, Turner says.
5. Use dashboards to surface critical issues.
The dashboards created through the Socrata-powered CountyStat program allow Prince George's County to be more efficient and effective.
The dashboards are hugely impactful at county meetings. They were built to show what's being reported most frequently and which service requests are overdue.
"TNI builds our action plans around the data from 311 that's visualized through Socrata's platform," says Birge.
If, for instance, Prince George's County receives a call every three weeks from residents to request that tall grass in the median be trimmed, it could indicate a scheduling issue with the county's department of public works and transportation.
"CountyStat's dashboards allow us to be more proactive. We can run reports and see what service requests are overdue and then work directly with agencies to resolve the problem or streamline the process." - Linda Turner, Program Director, Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative
"CountyStat's dashboards allow us to be more proactive," Turner says. We can run reports and see what service requests are overdue and then work directly with agencies to resolve the problem or streamline the process."
The dashboards aren't just helpful for the County's government — they also help residents stay informed.
"The volume of requests doesn't seem to bother residents as much as things being overdue," Birge says. "They aren't put out by a high number of bulky trash requests as long as it's picked up. Residents want to know are the agencies getting the work done."
To that end, the dashboards are designed to make it clear which agency is responsible for a given issue.
"We're trying to educate folks so they understand who is responsible and who to call," Birge says.
The dashboards pay off at community meetings, too.
"A lot of the questions asked during community meetings used to put us in a reactive mode," Turner says. "We'd respond, 'We will look into it.' Having the information on the website allows us and the community leaders/members to easily check the status of an issue through the dashboard."
6. Direct resources strategically.
The data highlighted on the dashboards has resulted in substantive process changes in trash collection, code enforcement and other agency processes. Mapping the data across Prince George's County neighborhoods makes it vividly — and visually — clear where work is required.
"The map makes it easy to identify where the problem is so agencies can place their resources appropriately," Birge says.
Both Birge and Turner were eager for all departments and agencies to function like the county's police department.
"Our police department looks at data every single day," says Turner. "We developed a monthly report which identifies the top three to five services requested of each agency per month. The new website on Socrata's platform makes life so much easier because the teams and residents have instant access to the information and the datasets make it so much cleaner to be able to communicate what we're doing."
7. Make sure to get feedback from residents.
Along with attending community meetings to meet residents in-person face-to-face, Turner also sends out surveys through social media and email to get the community's pulse.
"We receive a lot of feedback by email," Turner says. The program managers for each TNI area respond to each directly.
8. Get data in one place by encouraging residents to call 311.
Fixing problems is important, of course, but Prince George's County puts a premium on tracking them, too. That's why TNI encourages residents to always use 311 (either by phone, on an app called CountyClick311, or via the web) to report issues and concerns.
"311 doesn't just get problems fixed, but it helps analyze the big picture of the whole community," Birge says.
9. Understand your bandwidth limits.
Improving every area, all at once, isn't feasible.
"Prince George's County has the capacity to be in six areas at a time — and there will always be an area which ranks lowest based on how we run the data," Birge says. "We're comparing how one community compares to another. Ideally, we would like the worst and the best to get closer and closer together over time."
Everyone involved in TNI — including the County Executive, Rushern L. Baker, III — is eager for the program to be self-sustainable, so it can outlast the current administration and become a long-term path to improvement.
"Now that we've birthed the baby and got the baby walking, we need someone to teach the baby," Bakers says.
To that end, Prince George's County relies on the community leaders for transitioned areas — volunteers who schedule the meetings, manage the process, and develop the plan. The government continues to serve them as a resource.
A community leader in one of the first areas to transition out of the TNI program, Marty Newman, said in a interview with The Sentinel that her community is safer and more cohesive since being part of the initiative. After the transition, Newman said, "we'll still have access to all the same agencies, the same people."
10. Empower community members to lead the programs.
In 2017, TNI became fully staffed, with a program manager for each area. Year after year, neighborhood by neighborhood, TNI will continue to improve conditions in the County.
"Our goal is to educate, engage and empower citizens; connecting them to resources that are available," Turner says. "Once we identify their needs, we provide specific information to address them and the community leaders will be able to sustain the effort on their own. The ideal future would be for each community to have the ability to stand on their own — be empowered and advocate for themselves."