Giving Citizens the Tools to Grade Their Governments

Washington, D.C., is pioneering a system that takes performance and accountability to a new level.
by | January 23, 2013
 

Better and faster public services can be driven by improving the collection and visualization of customer data provided by citizens. Increasingly, cities are turning to 311 customer service systems to track the resolution of complaints. This holds promise, but with a little more effort cities can create platforms to drive powerful enhancements to both customer satisfaction and resource allocation.

Washington, D.C.'s Grade.DC.Gov is an ambitious effort to provide such a platform. Grade.DC.Gov solicits, mines, measures and displays resident satisfaction and reviews, placing emphasis on the most important outcome -- the quality of government services as perceived by the citizens being served.

A Web-based initiative launched by Mayor Vincent C. Gray last June, Grade.DC.Gov allows citizens to grade the quality of nine city agencies, as well as Washington's 911/311 service. City leadership partnered with a technology company, newBrandAnalytics, to reach out and gather citizen sentiment proactively, mining postings and messages for keywords to target areas of success or those needing improvement.

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The Grade.DC.Gov initiative isn't the first time the capital city has innovated in terms of performance management and accountability. Back in 2000, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams introduced a "scorecards" system to set goals for departments' outputs and outcomes, and held departments to achieving those measurable benchmarks.

While that approach did improve the poor performance of city agencies, the technology didn't exist to allow the system to be nearly as dynamic or comprehensive as is possible today. Goals were set as part of the citywide strategic plan, a static document developed through a Mayor's Citizen Summit and a Neighborhood Action Forum that were attended by 3,000 and 1,500 citizens, respectively. Officials had to take citizen output gathered through traditional means, build themselves a set of benchmarks for improvement, and then evaluate themselves by these benchmarks -- ultimately taking back some of the power that had been handed over to citizens.

Now, with systems like Grade.DC.Gov, agencies can be evaluated by a set of benchmarks held in the minds of citizens who wish to share their feelings. Feedback has become instantaneous, and so, city officials hope, can the responsiveness of the city government.

While users can use the Grade.DC.Gov website itself to leave grades and comments, they also can do so by texting, posting on blogs or using social-media services such as Facebook, Yelp and Twitter, making citizen involvement even more public and disseminated. The public can see the last couple of monthly grades, including key issues identified and notes of appreciation for improvements. To keep citizens from feeling like they might be tweeting into an echo chamber, the city reports include what steps are being taken to address citizen concerns. Commenters can be as specific as they like, providing feedback for agencies as a whole or in reference to specific offices or locations.

As a result, city officials now start their workdays with a daily digest of all comments concerning their departments over the last 24 hours, allowing for quick remediation of problems. And while negative feedback allows for mitigation, positive feedback lets officials know what's working and can help motivate their workers. Most government workers are socially motivated, driven by a desire to help others and their communities. Contact with the beneficiaries of the work they do goes a long way toward keeping morale and productivity high.

The early results of the Grade.DC.Gov initiative after it was launched last year were not encouraging. Despite years of working to improve governance and service delivery in the District, of the five departments that initially were part of the system, only one -- Public Works -- scored even a passing C-minus. However, in the months since and with more departments brought into Grade.DC.Gov, grades have risen to include A's and B's. Importantly, the city government isn't deciding itself whether it's improving -- ts citizens are.

Of course, any system has limitations based on who responds and why, with the obvious tendency for dissatisfied residents to respond disproportionately. And officials will need to continuously reach out to groups such as the elderly that will not be as engaged through social media. Regardless, these tools can make government more responsive and focused on quantifiable improvement. The comments from system users will drive improvements, just as they did in New York City when a simple icon on a Web page asking residents for suggestions on how to improve their city produced thousands of meaningful responses.

Grade.DC.Gov is the first such city system in the United States, but newBrandAnalytics reports that other cities are in discussion with it to adopt the technology. Years ago, when I was mayor of Indianapolis, we found that surveying customer satisfaction from outbound 311 calls provided meaningful comparative benchmarks by service and area. But that was rather crude compared to what Washington is able to do today with Grade.DC.Gov: taking the measurement of how well public services are delivered to a level that is both more pervasive and more collaborative.

Ben Weinryb Grohsgal contributed to the research and writing for this column. He is a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a student in the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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