Better Governing Through Data

Editorial Board of the New York Times: “Government bureaucracies, as opposed to casual friendships, are seldom in danger from too much information. That is why a new initiative by the New York City comptroller, Scott Stringer, to use copious amounts of data to save money and solve problems, makes such intuitive sense.

Called ClaimStat, it seeks to collect and analyze information on the thousands of lawsuits and claims filed each year against the city. By identifying patterns in payouts and trouble-prone agencies and neighborhoods, the program is supposed to reduce the cost of claims the way CompStat, the fabled data-tracking program pioneered by the New York Police Department, reduces crime.

There is a great deal of money to be saved: In its 2015 budget, the city has set aside $674 million to cover settlements and judgments from lawsuits brought against it. That amount is projected to grow by the 2018 fiscal year to $782 million, which Mr. Stringer notes is more than the combined budgets of the Departments of Aging and Parks and Recreation and the Public Library.

The comptroller’s office issued a report last month that applied the ClaimStat approach to a handful of city agencies: the Police Department, Parks and Recreation, Health and Hospitals Corporation, Environmental Protection and Sanitation. It notes that the Police Department generates the most litigation of any city agency: 9,500 claims were filed against it in 2013, leading to settlements and judgments of $137.2 million.

After adjusting for the crime rate, the report found that several precincts in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn had far more claims filed against their officers than other precincts in the city. What does that mean? It’s hard to know, but the implications for policy and police discipline would seem to be a challenge that the mayor, police commissioner and precinct commanders need to figure out. The data clearly point to a problem.

Far more obvious conclusions may be reached from ClaimStat data covering issues like park maintenance and sewer overflows. The city’s tree-pruning budget was cut sharply in 2010, and injury claims from fallen tree branches soared. Multimillion-dollar settlements ensued.

The great promise of ClaimStat is making such shortsightedness blindingly obvious. And in exposing problems like persistent flooding from sewer overflows, ClaimStat can pinpoint troubled areas down to the level of city blocks. (We’re looking at you, Canarsie, and Community District 2 on Staten Island.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has offered only mild praise for the comptroller’s excellent idea (“the mayor welcomes all ideas to make the city more effective and better able to serve its citizens”) while noting, perhaps a little defensively, that it is already on top of this, at least where the police are concerned. It has created a “Risk Assessment and Compliance Unit” within the Police Department to examine claims and make recommendations. The mayor’s aides also point out that the city’s payouts have remained flat over the last 12 years, for which they credit a smart risk-assessment strategy that knows when to settle claims and when to fight back aggressively in court.

But the aspiration of a well-run city should not be to hold claims even but to shrink them. And, at a time when anecdotes and rampant theorizing are fueling furious debates over police crime-fighting strategies, it seems beyond arguing that the more actual information, independently examined and publicly available, the better.”