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Entrepreneurial leadership: Martin O’Malley on transparency and accountability

Imagine being elected mayor of a city declared one of America’s most violent and dysfunctional, with drug markets, criminal gangs, and murder rates all out of control. That was the leadership challenge Martin O’Malley faced when he became mayor of Baltimore.

He knew the task at hand would require more than sheer determination. It would also require entrepreneurial guile backed by leading-edge tech to map, solve – and even predict – problems. He’d need to show the electorate – and the criminals – he meant business.

Martin O'Malley was so successful in his technology-led approach that he went on to become the Governor of Maryland in the United States from 2007 to 2015 and even a democratic contender for the Presidential nomination. He’s tackled many complex leadership issues in his political career, from being the first US leader to pass the marriage equality act to devising gun safety legislation.

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Featured in this episode

Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley
61st Governor of Maryland, former Mayor of Baltimore and 2016 US Democratic Presidential Candidate
A global authority on the use of technology and location-based analytics in government.
Stan Grant profile
Stan Grant
Multi-award winning journalist
Stan Grant is a multi-award winning journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years across 70 countries. He has hosted major news and current affairs programs on Australian commercial and public TV.

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  • Click to view the episode transcript

    Directions with Stan Grant: Episode One

    Governor O’Malley: The internet evolving now into the internet of things, you know, sensors real-time information, plus geographic information systems, the ability to share and to show people throughout your city where the crime is happening. Where the police deployments are. And also an important part, especially in our country where law enforcement has been intertwined with racial injustice, since the beginnings of our nation, being able to show people that you're actually doing what you promised to police the police, to restore the integrity of your police department.

    Stan Grant: When Martin O'Malley took on the role of Mayor of Baltimore, the city was one of America's most violent. Drug markets, criminal gangs, murder rates, all out of control. And yet Martin O'Malley had hope. So he rolled up his sleeves and started using technology to track and map the city's problem areas, so he could tackle the issues head on.

    I'm Stan Grant and on Directions, how Martin O'Malley turned a city around using technology solutions and a commitment to transparent leadership.

    Support for this episode comes from the country's leading mapping technology and services provider Esri Australia. To learn more about how Esri tech is supporting the world's most progressive leaders, visit

    Martin O'Malley was the Governor of Maryland in the United States from 2007 to 2015. He's also been a mayor and a democratic contender for the presidential nomination as well. So he's well versed in leadership and how to solve systemic issues. It's a pleasure to have you with us, Governor.

    Governor O’Malley: Good to be with you.

    Stan Grant: When I think about leadership and just allow me a personal observation. Reading things that you have written, watching you, listening to you, it appears to me that you have very carefully cultivated the idea of what a leader can be. You look like, and you sound like a leader. How important is it to have that persona?

    Governor O’Malley: I recall very distinctly once at the Des Moines register in Iowa, the editorial board said that in an age when people are looking for, you know, the unknown candidate, do you think your presidential looks are hurting you, and kind of flabbergasted.

    Stan Grant: There is a look and there is a sound when you hear and you see someone, they speak to you and they look like leadership. And if, if I may, that's exactly how you appear.

    Governor O’Malley: Oh, well, thank you. I had nothing to do with my looks. That was the product of the love of my parents, Tom and Barbara O'Malley, but I have had the pleasure and really the honour to serve. Really good people and two important roles as mayor of Baltimore and then as Governor.

    And you have to learn Stan that your words matter. You have to learn that integrity matters. You have to be willing to walk the walk, not only to talk the talk, and then you have to be able to show people whether or not the things you're doing are actually working. So the communications aspect of this did not come easily to me.

    When I was mayor, I thought I was great at communicating. What I came to understand once I was elected, Governor was, I was actually very good at getting things done. And at the mayoral level, that is a self-evident truth. You know, either the trash is picked up. Either the alleys are cleaner or they're not.

    And no amount of talking is going to convince people of the opposite. When you're Governor, collaborations become far more important and it becomes much more difficult as the electorate, if you will, the diversity of the people you serve grows. And sometimes I would feel like what I was saying was being heard entirely differently in two different parts of the state, even when I was saying the same thing.

    So life is all about learning and growing, right. I've tried to improve every single day that I had the honour to serve.

    Stan Grant: And leadership is about authenticity. It does put me in mind of something that the actor Lawrence, Olivier once said, he was asked what's the key to acting and he said, sincerity. Once you've learned to fake that you've made it, which may be a very cynical way of looking at it, but authenticity is important. Bringing that authenticity, but performing it as well and communicating it.

    Governor O’Malley: I believe, and I believe during my years of service, that the wisdom that actions speak louder than words and that no amount of high gloss performance art or flowery speeches is going to make the streets of Baltimore safer.

    No amount of press conferences, however well delivered, is going to reverse a 300-year decline in the health of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Only actions do those things. However, it is also very true that if you're not communicating the larger arc of the narrative, the larger story as the leader and bringing people along, you won't have in a democracy, the coalition, the consensus you need to get things done.

    Trust will disintegrate if the tough choices you're making, however principled, are resulting in some measurable progress.

    Stan Grant: Let me read a quote of yours from something you've written about leadership and about how leadership is changing.

    To solve our problems, you said, and to make government work again, what is needed is connection, not disconnection, a bringing together of organisations and capacities to work more, and you've used this word already, collaboratively towards solutions. The need is not only true for cities and States, it's true for nations and the great work of repairing our world common platforms for collaborative action.

    How did you bring that to your work, first as mayor, and then as Governor, particularly to deal with the critical issues you were facing. And one of those was the issue, and again, you've already mentioned this, the issue of making people safe.

    Governor O’Malley: Fundamental to any society is public safety. When I was elected mayor of Baltimore, our city had become the most violent, addicted, and abandoned city in America.

    More population loss than any city, including Detroit. And against that backdrop, I ran for mayor. And the foundational promise I made to the people of this majority African American city, was that in our city there was no such thing as a spare life. And we're going to stop turning a blind eye and shrugging our shoulders and saying that murder rates, open air drug markets, uh, shootings, 24 seven in some of our poorest neighbourhoods, are something that we just have to accept because there's nothing we can do about it.

    Hell no. I said vote for me and within six months, 10 of these open-air drug markets and the violence that is attendant to them will be things of our past. And then we'll move on to the next 10. We did that with a degree of openness and transparency that had never been attempted before in our city.

    And it was enabled Stan by two technologies that all of our children, and I have four now adult children, take for granted, but the internet, evolving now into the internet of things, you know, sensors real time information. Plus Geographic Information Systems, the ability to share and to show people throughout your city, where the crime is happening, where the police deployments are.

    And also an important part, especially in our country where law enforcement has been intertwined with racial injustice since the beginnings of our nation, being able to show people that you're actually doing what you promise to police the police. To restore the integrity of your police department. And what do I mean by that, I mean publishing online, down to a district level, discourtesy complaints against officers, excessive force and brutality complaints, police involved shooting. Conducting a hundred random integrity stings a year where you set up a video camera and see how the officer behaves when he thinks no one is watching them in a poor neighbourhood.

    And when officers fail, as in one of the early integrity stings, you know, an officer very infamously did, a white officer planting drugs on a black suspect. You step up and you take responsibility for that failing as a leader. And so all of those were ways, and there were others, you know, publishing the crime stats, putting them online, allowing people to see down to within a quarter mile, whether crime was trending up or trending down.

    And be able to conclude for ourselves whether things are moving in the right direction or in the wrong direction, whether they're actually doing, our elected officials are doing the things they promised they would do, or whether they're not.

    Stan Grant: It's fascinating how you've been able to draw those different elements together. When I hear you speak then, I hear you talk about connections not disconnection. I hear you talk about trust, about accountability, about responsibility. And interestingly, and I don't hear this a lot to be honest, particularly from political leaders, the role of technology and mapping. About the ability to see things to make connections.

    How does that change the nature of leadership? How does that raise expectations of accountability? How does that build those levels of trust, and potentially also making your life more difficult as a leader, because there it is, you can map it. You can see your failures, you can see your successes.

    Governor O’Malley: And I'm sure you've heard these in your own country. You know, there is a sense that when one is elected leader, part of the trust that they hold is the ability to hold information. The notion that leaders know things, you know, six months before the voters and citizens, those days are gone.

    Another old wisdom is that leaders shouldn't set public deadlines in public goals. Because if you don't hit them, everybody will say aha, including your opponents. But what I found is that there is a hunger among the citizenry, there's a hunger for openness, transparency for leaders that actually do set goals.

    Stan Grant: Let me look it now at the example of where something goes wrong. And when you have to confront that and what skills, what principles you bring to that and the capacity to acknowledge potentially where mistakes were made or lessons were learned.

    We know recently you talked about technology. It is the video phone, the ability to capture something in real-time and upload that for all to see, that's certainly sparked the Black Lives Matter protests. And we've seen that most recently with George Floyd. You also had an experience with Freddie gray, who died as well with sparking protests, riots, some of them very angry protests.

    When you look at the successes and the achievements you had in restoring public safety, and then you have an incident like that, that challenges those things and asks hard questions of you. What do you bring to a moment like that?

    Governor O’Malley: I really wish I had been either mayor or Governor when the unrest happened in Baltimore, around Freddie Gray. I was not, I had moved on.

    Stan Grant: But at the time, obviously people were, were saying, well, they were asking you questions about it because this went to legacy didn't it?

    Governor O’Malley: Yeah. And you have to, you have to acknowledge the failings when they happen and you have to do so, not as some sort of tourist or somebody that's floating high above the ground reality and the daily lives of people, you have to be among and with.

    Stan Grant: We know a little bit more now about your leadership, about your leadership style and your leadership principles. And you've just spoken there about the need for empathy and to stand with people, even as you're in a position of leadership and being accountable to people.

    So I want to raise a scenario for you now, take you out of your own environment, but draw on your experience, your expertise, your principles, philosophies, your leadership. And the scenario is this.

    You are the Premier of a state in Australia. Now, this state has been through some hard times. Unemployment is high. There's been some social unrest as well, and there is an election looming. Your government is in a fairly tight spot. It will be a very close election. One of the key issues is jobs.

    There is a proposed mine, which will provide up to 10,000 jobs directly or indirectly over the course of the project. Clearly there is a great desire for that, but there is also a risk. A risk that it will further damage to the environment, it is a coal mine at a time when people are arguing that we need to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

    But this has landed front and centre on your desk, as you approach an election where your government potentially is on the line. How do you approach a problem like that?

    Governor O’Malley: What a fun scenario.

    Stan Grant: No easy wins and some potential losses.

    Governor O’Malley: I'm reminded of a friend and mentor, former mayor of Philadelphia, former Governor Ed Rendell. He gave me some really practical wisdoms when I was first elected mayor. He said, make every decision as if you're not running for reelection.

    And he said, what you'll find is that not only will your, your batting average at making the right decision go up. But over the course of time even if people disagree with you about some of those decisions, they'd at least come to appreciate and respect the fact that that's how you're making the decision, based on what you believe from the evidence that you have and can share, you're making the best decision for all of us.

    That's the practical wisdom that I would bring to this.

    Stan Grant: Let me add another complicating factor, a political factor. You've spoken in broad terms there about the principles, and you should make decisions as if you are not seeking to be reelected or elected, and that, that will maintain the integrity of, of that decision.

    But right now the clock is ticking. Not only are you facing election, but at the federal level, the party to whom you are a member is also in power, and they're also facing a looming election. To complicate factors even more, the federal party is in a coalition government with a green party, a pro-environment, party.

    And they coming to you and they're saying to you, Premier, don't allow this to go ahead. If you allow the mine to go ahead, it'll kill us at the federal election. We will lose our coalition partner don't do it. You're now getting pressure from further up the chain to make a decision that potentially you may not agree with.

    How do you deal with that?

    Governor O’Malley: I had to deal with that all the, all the time. Again, going back to the wisdom I shared. I found, and there were many times when people in the Maryland general assembly said to me, Hey, you're loading this up, you're making us take too many tough votes. Don't do this. This is going to kill us the next election.

    But I always came back to that leadership that Governor Rendell shared with me to make every decision, particularly the tough ones, based on what you believe is best for the people that you serve. Now that doesn't mean that those tough decisions communicate themselves Stan. You have to be able to be among and with, to go back to that concept, uh, the members of your coalition, and you have to be able to look them in the eye and say, I am not going to let you lose because of this vote or because of this decision.

    I have your back. This is a decision that we're making for these principled reasons. And you make the decision. Then the chips will fall where they may.

    Stan Grant: Even if that means losing, losing power?

    Governor O’Malley: It might. And you know what, it might not. I was tied with the, uh, gentlemen, I had defeated four years before, and 30 days before reelection, I was tied as party leader.

    And a lot of my people were kind of puckering up and thought that maybe we had gone, uh, you know, taken on too many tough decisions. But we articulated the truth that every tough decision we made was made based on what's best to the voters and brought it always back to jobs, jobs, and jobs.

    I mean, back to your example, in your scenario of climate change, there are far more jobs to be created by making a transition to a hundred percent renewable energy than there is to be created by a short-term construction project, or even the long-term operation of coal mines that are increasingly automated.

    Stan Grant: And Governor O'Malley that that's a really good point to bring in something else that we've touched on. And that is the ability to map a problem. What you're talking about there is a juxtaposition of a long-term objective and potentially a short-term loss or a short-term gain in terms of jobs now for what may be a long-term cost to the environment and children's future.

    In terms of transparency, accountability, creating those connections, not disconnections that you've talked about, how do you bring technology and mapping to this to say to people here it is. Here's the scenario.

    Governor O’Malley: There were some who said that during a recession that we needed to hit the pause button on the actions and the efforts and the dollars that we were putting into restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Preserving open space, expanding, you know, forested buffers on streams, paying farmers to plant cover crops, that we needed to hit the pause button on that. And we needed also to kind of suspend the regulation of development because wherever somebody wanted to pave any part of the Chesapeake Bay, they should be allowed to do it because that's going to create jobs. How dare you be anti-jobs?

    We instead said that this recession will end. We will come out the other side of it. And we are taking many actions to preserve jobs, create jobs, make investments, but we are not going to throw away our children's future and their right to swim and to fish in a Chesapeake Bay that is healthy for human life and the other living systems in order, just to make easier decisions during this tough time.

    We had to call on the faith of our grandparents and the memory of the tough decisions they made. We had to challenge one another to look into the eyes of our children, and then we used technology and the map. And we showed people that look here are the objective criteria that tell us what the health of the 10 different river sheds coming into the Chesapeake Bay was in 2006. This is what it is in 2007. This is where it's headed in 2008, unless we dial up the actions and the tough decisions we make as individuals in order to, uh, reduce the flow of pollution.

    Some of those things were very unpopular. But those collective actions brought about objectively measurable results that the science confirmed that we were actually having some headway and we did something else at the same time. We restored people's trust in the fact that the individual actions we take and what we do together as a people actually can make a measurable difference.

    Stan Grant: This is the worship of GDP, isn't it over other aspects of measuring the health of a society.

    Governor O’Malley: That's right. And so together as a state, and we were the first state to do this back in, I think it was 2011, 2012, shortly after my reelection. With the university of Maryland, we created a different measure of progress. We called it the Genuine Progress Index. And sure we measured state GDP. We measured employment and unemployment, but we also measured other things like the health of our air, the health of our water, the open space, the parkland, commuting terms, public safety, those things that together define the wellbeing of the place that we love and call home and that we depend upon to give our children healthy fulfilling lives with hopefully greater opportunities than we have had.

    Stan Grant: Let me bring those ideas back to this specific scenario. And I want to, again, you're a politician, so I want to couch this in terms of, of a political

    Governor O’Malley: I'm a reformed one!

    Stan Grant: You're a politician I want to bring this back to a political dilemma. I'm really glad you use the example of GPI versus GDP, because let me use that.

    You've had a, as Premier in this scenario, you've been on the record as being very pro-environment. It has boosted your personal popularity it's one of the reasons that you led your government to election victory. In a cabinet meeting you have spoken precisely about this. We need to move away from GDP, we need to look at GPI. We need to look at what is our overall wellbeing, not just focus on the profit bottom line or, or jobs bottom line, but let's try to have a more holistic view of this.

    In your party are some who are decidedly anti-environment, they are pro jobs and their jobs are on the line because they are holding seats that they may lose at the election. Now you are just about to make a trip to the particular town where the mine is proposed and there's been a lot of anger.

    There have been protests and clashes between pro environmentalist groups and pro jobs groups. And you're going up there because as a leader, you've said that you don't hide, you go there and you stand with the people. You speak directly to the people. On the day that you arrive, one of the other members of your cabinet has leaked to the media that you have argued against the mine and you have argued for a different measurement of growth.

    And you're about to walk directly into this hornet's nest. How do you deal with the potential treachery of one of your own, the media who are now demanding questions and the anger that you are going to face?

    You now have a real political skin in the game and a real crisis to deal with right there on that day. How do you approach that?

    Governor O’Malley: And I didn't tell that minister to leak it to the press that I've been arguing against it. That's not part of this scenario?

    Stan Grant: Very Machiavellian. You're not the reforming politician after all.

    Governor O’Malley: This is what comes to mind in that scenario. For me as a leader, you have to acknowledge the dignity of all of those breadwinners that are concerned, deeply, fearful about their own family feature and their ability to put a roof over their family's heads. And you have to acknowledge that pain. But you also have to be truthful about the trust and the responsibility that you've been given to make the best decisions for all of the people that you serve.

    You know Stan I think humility is one of the underestimated powers in democratic small 'D' politics. You have to have the humility to accept that sort of grief. You have to acknowledge the fear I mean, for my part, I would look for, I would be telling my cabinet members, you sure as hell have better come up with other things we can do in this area if I'm going to walk in there and deliver the hard truth. And make this tough decision.

    You men and women had better put your heads together and come up with a plan that gives the folks here some greater hope than they have right now. There are some decisions that just aren't going to make everybody happy. I think you also have to make real these, um, the trade-offs here and how many jobs are actually created.

    Stan Grant: Just want to finish up then on what we've learned from this exercise, we've worked through that scenario and you know, the election is still to come. We don't know how, how you will fare, but you've made the decision you've explained it to the people.

    Governor O’Malley: I think I'm going to win. And I think I'm not going to lose any of my coalition.

    Stan Grant: But one of the things that's emerged from this, and it's been a fantastic conversation with you, is that clearly there are questions now in very cynical times, at a time when the world is going through enormous change, there is a loss of faith in institutions and government.

    There is a political populism that seeks to feed on fear and anxiety and sometimes very successfully. But if I can pull together one thing from all of this and the way that you have navigated through that scenario and the way you use technology and mapping to be able to look at what alternatives are and communicate better. And it comes down to this. Is integrity more important than power?

    Governor O’Malley: Yes.

    Stan Grant: So even if there was a short-term loss, you believe that in the longer term that you would win, by holding onto positions that you believe are positions of responsibility and integrity.

    Governor O’Malley: Yes. And there is an art to the actions and the timings of those actions that leaders have to be mindful of.

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that it's important that a leader not get too far in front of the people that he's leading. Otherwise they lose sight of him or her.

    Stan Grant: Drawing on your experience, your expertise of what we've discussed here today. For people listening to this and people who may be in positions of leadership and looking to navigate similarly wicked problems, give us a couple of very short, sharp tips that you believe can be applied to a situation.

    Governor O’Malley: So, create a default setting to openness and transparency. Create within your own organisation, a cadence of collaboration and accountability based on the latest emerging truth, and show that truth, whether it's the health of your rivers and streams, job creation, carbon reduction.

    Show that to every citizen in your state or in your country in the same real-time way with simple dashboards and visual tools that you expect your people to prepare for you as the executive. And then the third wisdom is this, just as software companies have developed the notion of agile software development, among a self-governing people, democracy itself is an agile, longitudinal experiment.

    Bring people together in that cadence of collaboration every two weeks. And give them the permission to ask one another the question, is what we're doing, working or not.

    Stan Grant: And on that point, just to close on, that then comes back to a fundamentally to accountability. Where do you make things transparent? When you have made decisions you need to be accountable. How do you enforce that?

    Governor O’Malley: The first is to embrace openness and transparency and setting public goals with deadlines. This is the new way of leadership. People expect it. And the way that you enforce that openness and transparency and make it part of the culture of your government is to, as a collaborative leader, put yourself in the centre of that collaborative circle, using the technology of the data and the map, measure performance, and create a regular cadence of collaboration and accountability.

    You have to start and not stop. In order to overcome the bureaucratic inertia, you have to keep going. Using your authority as the leader to convene, to focus, to ask the questions, is what we're doing working, or is it not working. Because the second you lead up, the llama will spit back at you, and that mule will kick. So you have to keep going.

    Stan Grant: Governor, it's been a really illuminating and inspiring conversation and I want to thank you for that. And for anyone who's been listening in as well, if you want to learn more about Governor O'Malley, you can go to our website and we'll have information on the Governor's book, which is called Smarter Government.

    We'll have some other articles as well and other useful resources. There's also a free trial of the software the Governor used to build the system of transparency and accountability, which you've spoken about so generously today.

    Again, Governor, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

    Governor O’Malley: Thank you Stan Grant. It's been an honour. Thanks.

    Stan Grant: That's Governor Martin O'Malley. This is Directions and I'm Stan Grant.

    On the next episode of Directions, Linda Peters advises government leaders, and the United Nations on how to turn data into effective policies that address some of our greatest challenges. From deploying foreign aid, during famines, to building sustainable infrastructure. Her work with agencies around the globe, including the US Census Bureau to create a digital census took on new significance as the COVID 19 pandemic arrived.

    Linda Peters: And when you first go in and start looking at data, you don't know what you're going to find. You don't know if a certain data set coming from an entity, be that a utility company or a, ministry of health, like how rich is that data? How complete is that data? How current is that data?

    So you're going to have to iterate through all of those different data sets and see, what's going to reveal the information and help you start to establish the patterns. As geographers we always look for patterns.

    Stan Grant: That's the next episode here on Directions.

    This is a Boustead Geospatial Technologies Production. This episode was narrated by me, Stan Grant and Governor Martin O'Malley. Sound engineered by Nearly Media and Deadset Studios with editing support from Kim Douglas and Sydney Podcast Studios. Artwork by Superscript and our Executive Producers are Alicia Kouparitsas and Raquel Jackson.

    If you like our show, please give us a five-star rating, leave a review, and be sure to tell your friends. Follow us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

    You can also download a free trial of Esri software, check out our show notes and access other resources at

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Esri Australia, its subsidiaries or partners.

    Hypothetical scenarios presented as part of this episode are purely fictional. And while they may draw on current issues, they do not depict the actions, values or beliefs of any specific individual and/or organisation.

    And finally this production would not be possible without the support of Esri Australia.

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