Communicating the Counts

Performance measures needn't be feared. Publicizing the data in the right way can benefit government agencies and the public.
September 17, 2008
She is the director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.
By Shelley Metzenbaum  |  Contributor
Shelley Metzenbaum was a GOVERNING contributor. She is the director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Caution: Performance measurement may be dangerous to your health -- or at least to your reputation.

Those of us who work in or with government know only too well the problems that can arise when journalists start paying attention to performance data from government. Declining performance, missed targets, and performance that is worse than peers are fodder for a nasty news story. Our instinct, therefore, is to fear the media and hope it will ignore our measurement efforts.

Bad instinct. Instead of running from the media, we should run to it -- but armed with data to get reporters to write articles that will help government tackle social, environmental, and economic problems. We should also think more strategically about other key audiences that can use government data to make better decisions to improve societal outcomes.

Check your local paper. If it is like my mine, it carries several stories every day with data about problems that government agencies are trying to reduce. Some even report government successes. One day this month, for example, the lead story in my local paper reported the increase in state residents with healthcare coverage linked to the state health care reform law. On another page, there was a story about a new link between arsenic and diabetes, based on a "new analysis of government data," and another, again citing government data, reported racial disparities in the use of corporal punishment by schools. Yet another story reported the number of college students who died from drinking. Three editorials included data, while the front page of the metro section featured two maps showing obesity rates in every state from 1991 through 2007. Simply put, the paper was packed with stories using data gathered by government or nonprofit organizations.

Performance measurement makes a good news story. And the media is hungry for a story. It follows, then, that government agencies should think intentionally about how to communicate performance data to the media, and to do so with a specific goal in mind. Does an agency hope to increase awareness of a problem? To build understanding of the nature and causes of the problem? To enlist allies and expertise? To motivate people to stop harmful practices and adopt beneficial ones? Or, to strengthen public confidence in government? A good communication strategy -- based on good data -- can accomplish each of these goals and more.

Of course, effective communication of performance data is seldom as simple as sending a performance report to reporters, or guiding them to a database. To win media attention, agencies need to understand when performance measurement is newsworthy and be creative about how to "sell" a story. Sudden change in direction or size can grab attention. So can a big change in one area, say in one community or one subset of the population. Data linked to a holiday or local event often gets coverage. Watch the news next Valentine's Day for stories citing health trends for managing heart disease, with advocates promoting heart-healthy behaviors. The first day of school affords an annual opportunity to bring attention to children's health trends and urge better nutrition and physical fitness. Earth Day has become a time for annual environmental report cards in some communities. And, give data a personality if you can. A reporter friend once told me, "To interest the media in performance measurement, give it a face, especially a child's face."

When contemplating the best way to communicate what government counts, the media is only one of many important audiences for performance measurement. Elected executives and legislators need data to decide funding allocations. People running programs need data to improve program design. And well-packaged, well-placed data can convince people (or organizations) to change their behavior, something many government agencies must do to accomplish program objectives.

Let me share a story that a friend told me, illustrating the value of paying attention to how, where and when data are disseminated. His son attended a camp with a self-service dining hall. Unfortunately, campers' eyes proved bigger than their stomachs; they routinely took more food than they could eat and tossed huge amounts away. Multiple pleas to campers to take only what they would eat were ignored. Finally, the camp decided to create what it called the "Ort Report." (The word "ort," it turns out, refers to a small morsel of food.) After every meal, campers were asked to toss their waste into a bucket, which would then be weighed. They charted the weights on a graph, dubbed the Ort Report, and hung it prominently in the dining hall. No rewards were offered nor penalties threatened, but slowly and surely, the waste line declined. Simply posting performance data in an easily read graph, in the right spot, was powerful enough to motivate campers to cut their wasteful consumption.

As government agencies get more sophisticated about performance measurement, they also need to hone their skills in communicating what they count to the media and to key audiences who could use the data to make wiser decisions. Government needs to think more carefully about who needs performance information, where and when they need it, and how to present and deliver the data so it is understood and gets used. A tremendous amount of effort goes into preparing annual performance reports, but the reports are not enough. Government needs to spend more time figuring out how to get its performance data to jump off the pages of the report and onto the pages of the press and into action to improve outcomes.