Climate Change, Coronavirus, The Global Cable

Fighting Coronavirus with Martin O'Malley

March 27, 2020
By The Global Cable | Perry World House

In this week's episode of our podcast, The Global Cable, Governor Martin O'Malley talks to us about the three things every citizen needs to hear from government during a pandemic; how policymakers can use data to tackle society's biggest problems, from coronavirus to climate change; and his dream of meeting Bruce Springsteen.

Martin O'Malley served as Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.  Throughout his time in office, Governor O'Malley championed new ways of thinking about city and state government. He introduced systems called 'CitiStat' and 'StateStat' to improve performance management in government, and 'BayStat' to help turn around a 300-year decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He recently published his second book, Smarter Government: How To Govern for Results in the Information Age.

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

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Franklin Few

In the Franklin Few, Governor O'Malley recommended what he's been reading recently:

'White House Warriors' by John Gans:

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' by Yuval Noah Harari:


Martin O'Malley [00:00:09] First and foremost is the protection of lives and our security. Every day, that's the first order of government. And then a pandemic, that certainly focuses the collective mind, doesn't it? In a sense, however large the emergency, there are really three questions that any leader has to be able to answer for her or his people. And those questions are, "What has happened? What are you doing about it? And what should me and my family be doing to protect ourselves?"

John Gans [00:00:49] Welcome to the Global Cable, the podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. This week's episode is a little different than usual.

[00:01:05] Like many others across the world, we're working and recording remotely in light of the coronavirus pandemic. So today's and the next few episodes might not sound quite the same as our previous ones. Thank you for your understanding. We're hope you're staying safe out there and staying tuned to the Global Cable or we'll continue to bring you great conversations with global experts over the next few weeks. Our guest today is Martin O'Malley, who served as Governor Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore. Throughout his time in office, Governor O'Malley championed new ways of thinking about city and state government. He introduced systems called CitiStat and StateStat to improve performance management in government and BayStat to help turn around a 300 year decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He recently published his second book, Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age, that leverages lessons from his time in office. Today, Governor O'Malley talks to us about what the government's role should be in the coronavirus pandemic, how data can be used in new ways to tackle problems like this pandemic, how to make a case for environmental issues at a time when so much is going on the world, and what it's like to meet Bruce Springsteen. Governor O'Malley, welcome to the Global Cable.

[00:02:19] Governor Martin O'Malley, welcome to the Global Cable.

Martin O'Malley [00:02:23] Hey, good to be on the globe. Good to be on your cable. So thanks for having me.

John Gans [00:02:29] Good to have you. So you and I have known each other a long time. I've known you to always be one of the more thoughtful political and policy minds out there. So I thought I would ask, what are you making of the coronavirus pandemic? And what do you think citizens' and the government's role in these sort of crises are?

Martin O'Malley [00:02:49] You know what? It makes you appreciate good leadership and it makes you appreciate why it is that we have a government. And first and foremost is the protection of lives and our security every day. That's the first order of government and then a pandemic, it certainly focuses the mind, doesn't it? In a sense, however large the emergency, there are really three questions that any leader has to be able to answer for her or his people. And those questions are, "What has happened? What are you doing about it? And what should me and my family be doing to protect ourselves?" It is those urgent questions that people are tuning in to have answered every day, and so far, some of the clearest messaging we are receiving is coming from America's governors. Yes, they represent different places. Some have been harder hit at first in this pandemic than others. I don't know if you've been able to see, but I have tuned in to Governor Cuomo's last couple of press conferences from New York. And he is answering those questions for us. What has happened? What are you doing about it? What should me and my family be doing to protect ourselves?

[00:04:16] And each is really a question of where, right? And these things play out, yes, across the globe in terms of a pandemic. But we may make sense of things from our own home places.

[00:04:31] And you see Governor Cuomo speaking in language and metaphors that make sense in our own home places. You can go out and you can walk alone, but do not go out. You can play pickup basketball with people, simple things like that. So as I watch this unfold, what I keep coming back to is the urgent need for the protective equipment for our first responders. And in this case, that's health care. And also that check point that we have long known is out there, and that is for the ventilators. So that's the urgent operational crunch right now. And only a network wouldn't have seen that that's the crunch that's coming in. And most of these folks have known that for weeks.

John Gans [00:05:23] That's great. So you are obviously somebody who has plenty of governing experience. You were Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore. Not in that order, but you also are author of a new book, "Smarter Government: Governing for Results in the Information Age," which gets into how you can use data and government to tackle problems in new ways. And so, what's this sort of main message you'd like people to take away who are maybe picking this book up during this pandemic, whether they're sitting in government or whether they're just sitting in their homes?

Martin O'Malley [00:05:56] Thank you, John. And it's something, I suppose, about our nation that no one on the domain's smarter government. So now I do. The main thrust of the book is this: thanks to technology, namely location technology, the ability that we take for granted in terms of geographic information systems to tell us how close our Uber driver, for example, is to us or whether they're squaring the block. So thanks to technology, location technology and the Internet, and its evolution into the Internet of Things, we had never had a better ability as a self-governing people to model and to measure and to map the endemic changing systems in ways that all can see. That's a capacity that no prior generation has ever had. What we lack in this crisis of Western democracy is not the technology. What we lack are the new socio-technical habits— habits of leadership, habits of management that allow us to get inside the turning radius of the big challenges we face as a people. Whether that challenge is global warming or whether that challenge is this pandemic.

 [00:07:25] So then instead of chasing after the train, we're actually anticipating. We are modeling, we are measuring what works and we are creating and seeing the feedback loops and real-time ways. You see this played out in the in some of the monitors that are out there. Pardon for the local hometown plug, Johns Hopkins and its ability to model and see where identified cases of corona have happened all around the globe and actually to report that in real time.

[00:08:04] Well, actually, John, pretty good at doing this in a big emergency, but then sadly we revert back to our old selves when the emergency passes. And I'm glad to talk more about that if you want to. Or give you some examples.

John Gans [00:08:24] I think it's interesting to ask. I think, if you were leading a city or leading a state right now, how would CitiStat and how would StateStat help you respond to a pandemic like this? Is it like looking at this is where we are, this hospital's overwhelmed or this is where we're seeing people who aren't following the social distancing and some of the other practices or this is where a business that should be closed isn't closed. Is that what it sort of helps you do?

Martin O'Malley [00:09:00] Yeah, it's not so much about the details. It's about the whole battle map. And pardon me for speaking the military terms, but military people get this stuff a little more quickly than those of us who are trained in civilian walks of life. Military people call it a battle rhythm. You never think of going into a battle without a clear battle plan. And yes, we've heard it. The upchuck said time and again, "No plan lasts the first engagement." But nonetheless, military people for a long time now have understood the importance of understanding the terrain—the map in front of them. Understanding that they're setting a battle near them. What I call in the book, "the cadence of collaboration and accountability." So what it's really about, is there are some powers that the leader has and that's especially true in an emergency.

[00:10:01] That is the power to convene and to focus and to prioritize the ability to to gather periodically. And I don't mean once a day. I mean, you set a battle rhythm in an emergency, and that usually involves getting people together at least twice a day. It's not two or three times a day. Once you go to emergency management operations, say, I'm a big hurricane or something, and you've seen the pictures on TV with our governors speaking to us. And the big board and screens behind them and people in various clusters.

[00:10:43] It's about getting that group to pause every hour and to focus, to prioritize, and to also be very, very aware, as real-time as possible, of the latest emerging truth on that map. Whether that truth, in this case, is the outbreak of symptoms, or the degree to which our emergency rooms are being overwhelmed, or the degree to which bed space or ventilators are at capacity or have exceeded capacity, all of these are that the details of the battle.

[00:11:23] But what the leader and only the leader can do is to insist that people convene as a group, different perspectives focused on the same emerging reality, and make sure that everyone from their perspective is surfacing the right questions and then breaking that huddle—football metaphor—to go back and run their critically important part of the play. Does that make any sense?

John Gans [00:11:50] No, it absolutely does and I think even for nonmilitary folks, it will as well. So one of the things that you prioritized, in addition to general preparedness and emergency response was environmental protection. You helped turn around a 300 year decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Now, environmental issues aren't always easy sells for political leaders and we see that even today. How did you get people to engage with those issues 20 years ago? And are you more or less optimistic about making the case for the environment today?

Martin O'Malley [00:12:24] I am optimistic. And I do grow more optimistic as I hear what's in the hearts and the attitudes and the minds of our young people under 25. Because it's Camus that said if you want to know where our country's headed, listen to our young people under 25. So there is a dawning new ethic on the face of this planet and it is the ethic of the earth.

[00:12:50] After the Decalogue, you know, the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, it is the ethic of the Earth. The truth is we're all in this together—that the land, the air and the water are resources that all of us share not only with one another, but also with future generations. So in our own state, probably because of our proximity to the largest estuary in North America, namely the Chesapeake Bay, which comes right up through the center of Maryland, we had long been championing the mantra "Save the Bay" ever since at least Governor Harry Hughes brought us all to realize that the development, that the population growth, that the agricultural farming on the eastern shore, that all of these things were impacting the bay and threatening her health and her life. We have to have that awareness that we must take action to save the bay. But the great Barbara Mikulski once said to me as I was elected governor, she said, "You know, the problem with our efforts on the bay is that while we have lots of bay programs, we don't have a bay program, namely one authoritative kind of platform, source of truth, about what the values are of each of these various actions we take in terms of nitrogen first and then sediment reduction." So as a state, and this is in Chapter 10 of the book Smarter Government, we created a program called BayStat. The goal is to put the dots on the map where people are falling victim to crime in your city or in your state and deploy your police services and your prevention activities in anticipation or to solve or to prevent. In this case, it's a matter of understanding where the nitrogen, phosphorus and the sediment are flowing from the lands that make up the maps known as that land area known as the state of Maryland. We understood from science that there are four main sources of this mostly non-point source runoff. They were agriculture, storm water, septic systems, and also wastewater treatment plants. And we came up with the scientists and the engineers collectively in repeated regularly held meetings to arrive at these answers and working in the meantime, we came up with a suite of 34 actions, John. Not 3400, not 340,000, not 34 million—34 actions. And we were able with some certainty to be able to say that if you were to, for example, upgrade this wastewater treatment plant to highest and best nutrient removing technology that will take a hundred thousand pounds of nitrogen out of this watershed every single year moving forward compared to what we'd been doing on a year to date basis. Same calculations of just math, the same calculations in terms of what is the value of nitrogen and phosphorus uptake, that is from the fertilizer that spread over an acre of corn if you put a cover crop on it during the winter months. So we brought people together in a regular cadence of accountability and collaboration. We called it BayStat, using the map to integrate once separate silos of data and information. We worked to drive those actions that reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus and sediment into the veins of the bay.

[00:16:42] Did we do it all in one year? No, we didn't do it all in one year. We kept pushing that rock up the hill against deadlines that were monthly that rolled into two year milestones. And once we started doing that, Virginia followed suit. Then all six states on the watershed followed suit. Then President Obama issued an executive order upon his election as as president, making this watershed, the first watershed in his years of service, where he would focus federal attention and help. But honestly, it was 90 percent of the effort that was the states, John, doing what the science and technology already told us we should be doing but measuring it, setting short deadlines and goals for people, and using that authority of leadership to bring people together again and again and again.

[00:17:36] We set a goal, a dream without a redbrick goal, without a deadline. It's just a dream. So we set a goal with a deadline of reaching the healthy bay tipping point, that point at which our actions on land will join forces with the restorative and healing powers of nature to make the 10 major river sheds flowing into the bay a little healthier every year instead of a little sicker as they had been made every year for the prior three hundred. And last year, I am gratified to report, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay were healthier than they'd been in any year since standard measures were deployed in nineteen eighty five. So we need to keep the effort going to keep pushing that rock up the hill, as it were. But those are some of the things that we did that led to this turnaround. And I would like to share with you that that chapter of the book, Chapter 10, was the most enjoyable for me to write. And that's such a metaphor for what it is that we need to do in terms of restoring the climate of this earth. It's the same. It's the same discipline, really. It's the same practice. Share information with all, openly and transparently. NAPA—know that the most impactful actions are. Rinse and repeat. Bring stakeholders together regularly, repeatedly. Set goals with deadlines. Use the technology of the information age to create pictures, patterns, things that people can understand in the small places close to home where they can take action.

John Gans [00:19:15] That's great. So I think one of the things I just want to follow up on is your point, which is one of the one of the many silver linings of the current pandemic is that, as viewed from space, pollution is actually decreasing. The slowing down of economies is leading to a break for Mother Earth for lack of a better term. So do you think that this pandemic is going to help or at least force Americans and those around the globe to rethink their relationship with the natural world and the environment?

Martin O'Malley [00:19:51] I think that's already happening. I think it's happening pretty dramatically in the attitude of the younger human beings. I think this will accelerate a jump. It's very difficult for us to wrap our heads around some of the modeling and some of the things that the health experts tell us. Fatality rates in the United States, as I heard - Dr. Sanjay Gupta has become my best friend on TV, he talks to me every day - I see him making estimates of between 200,000 and 1.7 million people.

[00:20:38] And so I believe that the emerging ethic of the earth will be greatly accelerated by this crisis and by the changes that we need to make. And I'm not talking about just not going to church, not going to the gym. I do believe that there is a spiritual shift afoot in the entire world. And perhaps our nation was slow to that shift.

[00:21:11] But there is, and in this crisis, I think the seeds of a new beginning for us and a way to accelerate that awareness that in fact we're all in this together. How many times have we heard that phrase in the newscasts and what we're seeing online? We're all in this together. It's one of the three television Catholic social justice teachings. And I think it's also one of the deep abiding truths of our humanity, regardless of what faith we profess or if we profess to have no faith at all. We're all in this together and we need to summon forward the power of that truth even in a time when many of us feel more vulnerable than perhaps we ever have.

John Gans [00:21:59] Well, almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who knew a thing or two about the environment, government, and to a degree community spirit, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations with fellow Philadelphians interested in current global affairs. We've updated it for use today to anchor our podcast here. So these are short questions that can have short answers.

 [00:22:21] And so the first one is always the toughest, especially for those who are locked up in their homes for the time being, which is who would you most like to meet today and why? Other than Sanjay Gupta, I suppose.

Martin O'Malley [00:22:33] Who would I most like to meet today and why? And it can be at any point from any time in history?

John Gans [00:22:41] Sure. If it's somebody today, if there's somebody in the past, whoever you want to talk about.

Martin O'Malley [00:22:46] Dead. We can't do Jesus right? Let me put Jesus out there, number one. Lincoln number two. But, you know, as a Christian, I believe Jesus is also living, so as far as I would say regular human beings, I would say among the dead I'd love to meet Lincoln. Among the living, I'd love to meet Bruce Springsteen.

John Gans [00:23:13] All right. All right. So you're saying that you've been Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore and run for president and you haven't met Bruce Springsteen yet?

Martin O'Malley [00:23:23] I haven't. No.

John Gans [00:23:24] I met Bruce Springsteen.

Martin O'Malley [00:23:26] Wow, I'm jealous.

John Gans [00:23:28] You know, I don't mean to one-up you here, but I have actually met him and I'll have to save that story for another time.

Martin O'Malley [00:23:36] Was he nice? Tell me he was nice.

John Gans [00:23:38] He was soft-spoken and sweet. So I'll tell the quick story, which is that I worked in the Obama administration and at the end of the Obama administration, right in December 2016, my wife and I had our first son. And in January 2017, my friend who worked at the Obama White House sent my wife a note and said, "Hey, can John steal a night away? Got a special treat for him."

John Gans [00:24:02] And she said sure. So she gave me the go ahead. And he just said, meet me at the White House. This time on this night, it was like a week before the new administration. And I showed up and they said, wait here. And I went to the guest and they said, oh, you're here for the Springsteen event. And it was the first I heard about it. And it turned out Springsteen gave a small concert, one man and his wife, Patti Scialfa. And I raced to the front line to try and get the front door. But when I walked in the door, they separated us and I ended up in the last row of a 200 person concert. But on the way out, we were the first ones out the door. And so in the White House and the Red Cross hallway right there in the main drag of the White House, he was saying good night to the Obamas. And I was interested in seeing him and so I walked past the marine dressed guards who were protecting him. And I walked right up and said hello. And I was with my friend and he said hello to us. He was like, "Hey, hey, nice to meet you." And I told him that I had my first son just weeks before.

[00:25:18] So Patti Scialfa gave me a big hug and Bruce said congratulations. And so that concert actually ended up becoming the basis for the Broadway show.

Martin O'Malley [00:25:29] Oh that's great. That's very cool. I like that story.

John Gans [00:25:33] That's a pretty good one. So the next question on the Ben Franklin questionnaire is, have you read anything, seen any movies or films or documentaries, or listen to any music or speeches or anything else that are related to world affairs or anything else that our listeners might be interested in?

Martin O'Malley [00:25:50] Yeah, I guess the correct answer to this question is White House Warriors by John Gans. It's an awesome book.

John Gans [00:25:56] Thank you for the plug.

Martin O'Malley [00:25:58] A book for our times on national security. So I'm going to give two answers: political and sociological. So best political book is John Gans' "White House Warriors" and especially at a time like now, understanding the importance of why we even have a National Security Council and the importance of institutions that should actually act like the rudder in the ship of state and carry us through even as we change leaders from term to term.

Martin O'Malley [00:26:30] But the other very cool book I've read is Sapiens by Yuval Harari. And honestly it's such a thick book. A friend of mine gave it to me a few years ago and said you should read this you'll love it, it'll blow your mind. And I put off reading it just because it was so thick. But that book changed my perspective on a lot of things and drove home some other truths that I learned only late in life, like the importance of stories.

Martin O'Malley [00:27:03] Okay, we're not doing too well on short answers. And my guess is that Ben was probably asking these questions at a bar someplace. Where are you? In Philadelphia. So he probably wasn't in a hurry.

John Gans [00:27:14] I doubt he was in a hurry. So we have two more. Do you know of any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who's done something that deserves praise or attention?

Martin O'Malley [00:27:26] Woo! Yeah. I mean, my head's going like a popcorn machine. There are stories of hardworking, loving, giving, generous people all over the place. We don't see a whole lot of them on TV. A couple come to mind. You know, my friends, Billy and Debbie, sure, that started a foundation many years ago called Share Our Strength and managed to persuade a number of states to pursue the very achievable goal of eradicating childhood hunger in their own states by a date certain. And now, of course, they're shifting to meeting the needs of all those kids that can't go to school where they used to be able to get two meals a day. So Debbie and Billy come to mind. Krupa brothers, two young guys that aren't so young anymore I guess. But they grew up in Chicago and they now work in South America, helping people who are living without a limb, an arm, a leg, and 90 percent of people in need of prosthetic care in the world are in the developing nations of the world. And if they don't get that artificial limb, which we kind of take for granted here in the U.S., they're relegated to live a life not only without mobility, but oftentimes sitting on a curb side begging for their sustenance. So those brothers did tremendous work, unsung, but really giving people back their lives and doing it with a lot of repurposed limbs from the United States that we would otherwise just throw out. So let me stop there.

John Gans [00:29:35] That's amazing. And then the last question is, is there anything that you recommend that Penn students do to be of service to the world?

Martin O'Malley [00:29:47] Oh, I'm a little biased here, given my own choice of vocation, but I believe that public service is an honorable, rewarding, and really needed calling. Especially now. I believe that the future of cities and the future of our planet have been now joined in one urgent movement of human development. Cities should and can and must lead the way in terms of restoring the health of this planet. And cities are also the places where we see the greatest gap between justice and injustice. That's where the cruelties of criminal justice systems or economic systems impact so many lives. If I were in front of a group of one hundred students there at Penn right now, I'd be jumping up and down and encouraging anyone that feels that calling in their heart to go into public service, go into local government, make a difference in your city or your county or your state. You can make a much bigger difference there than you can, I would argue, as a staffer in the United States Senate, or perhaps even if you'd become a United States senator. Local government's where it's at. Cities are where it's at. Cities have to save the planet. And it's going to take a dedicated new generation of people to lead the way with us and for us.

John Gans [00:31:22] That's awesome. Well, thank you so much. Governor Martin O'Malley, thanks for joining us here on the Global Cable.

Martin O'Malley [00:31:28] Thank you, John.