The Politics of Outcomes

Accountability-based government requires a culture shift for elected officials. It’s a change they’re not always ready to make.
by | October 25, 2011
 

A hundred years ago, elected officials pressed for accountability tools that would help them demonstrate to their constituents that government was functioning properly and efficiently. In particular, they turned to measures of inputs to demonstrate accountability—full-time-equivalent counts, space utilization, travel expenses and other such measures.

These days, the inadequacies of such accountability arrangements are becoming increasingly apparent:

• Are more or fewer FTEs better? Doesn't it depend on what those FTEs produce?

• Does counting the number of arrests really tell us anything about how safe we are?

• Do travel expenses tell us anything about how well a government is being managed?

• Does the number of assessments carried out by the county assessor's office tell us anything about how good a job the assessor's office is doing?

As a result, the past 20 years has produced an explosion in various forms of outcome-based measurement and accountability systems, including outcome-based budgeting. Yet, at the same time, introduction of these systems has raised many new questions for elected officials: If elected officials don't use inputs like FTEs as a way of controlling for costs, how can they assure that services are being delivered efficiently? What does an outcome-based approach to policymaking look like? How can we get outcome-based data that we can trust? How much freedom do we give to managers charged with producing the outcomes?

Let's look at a large urban school district whose board chose to pursue an outcome-based approach. This case study will help illustrate some of the opportunities and pitfalls for elected officials pursuing outcome-based accountability arrangements.

The school board oversaw a community engagement process that involved teachers, students, parents, community groups, business and higher education in exploring a set of outcomes that would best serve the students of the school district. A broad consensus was ultimately built around 11 outcomes that included measuring of student achievement, reducing achievement gaps among students of various ethnic backgrounds, and improving both the learning climate in schools and instructional competency.

To gather credible, trustworthy data, the board established several different measurement systems, based both on objective data and on surveys, to gather perceptions of students, teachers, parents and school administrators. An outside polling firm used random samples to conduct the quarterly surveys and reported data to the board and to the public.

This approach worked well, and it yielded some lessons. The performance data were reported publicly; the local newspaper made a point of covering this "story" closely. This greatly strengthened the impetus for the board and the administration to deliver on the outcomes. The lesson: Frequency of reporting is critical. It is best to choose measures that can be reported on monthly or quarterly.

Another lesson involved accountability: The school board compensated the superintendent, in part, based on progress on the outcomes. In turn, the superintendent made school-district administrators and principals accountable through their personal evaluations. This is where things didn't go so well. The great power of an outcome-based approach is that if elected officials have credible ways to know if the outcomes are being achieved, they can relax their controls on the means taken to achieve those outcomes. This is a huge culture shift for most elected officials—and one this school board wasn't ready to make.

For example, one of the outcomes was a composite score of the school learning climate as measured by surveys of students, teachers and parents. Quarterly results were posted for each of the approximately 100 schools in the district. The superintendent told principals they were accountable for this result and encouraged them to experiment with ways to improve their scores.

Over the course of the next seven quarters, scores rose dramatically. At a regular quarterly meeting to review outcome data, the board wanted to know what practices were contributing to this great progress. The superintendent speculated that it was "probably a thousand different things," and he went on to say that as long as the principals were working within established policies, he didn't care or even need to know why they were being so successful.

The board could not tolerate this. Board members insisted that the superintendent identify "best practices" and then order all the schools to adopt those practices. After this mandate went into effect, progress flattened and in some cases began to decline.

This is an example of the old culture at work. Elected officials need to learn to trust the outcome data and allow the freedom that is so fundamental to the process of innovation. And they need to become advocates for constituent focus on outcomes rather than inputs. Doing so can help change the political dialogue.

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