Why We Need to Grade Our Governments (Again)

An exceptional project from the past illustrates how beneficial measuring public-sector performance can be.
September 9, 2015
Paul Posner
By Paul L. Posner  |  Contributor
The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University

It is difficult to turn to Twitter, or read the newspaper if you are still so inclined, without being bombarded with stories of management failures and performance shortfalls at all levels of government. At the federal level, serious failures have triggered scandals in agencies as diverse as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of Personnel Management and even the Secret Service.

The feds are by no means alone. Writing for Governing earlier this year, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene highlighted six major management challenges facing states and localities this year that can apply to federal agencies as well: cybersecurity, replacing retiring baby boomers, managing big data, catching up on deferred maintenance, overseeing private contractors and making transparency work.

While managing government has never been easy, these challenges seem to have become even more daunting in recent years. Many factors are responsible: the growing complexity of government's role, the higher expectations for quality service delivery on par with private-sector experiences, the polarization of political parties that has infected and politicized once-prosaic managerial issues, and the growth of watchdogs and interest groups ready to pounce on the latest transgression.

Another problem, as I have pointed out in this space, is that political leaders get little or no reward for fixing these problems, at least in this lifetime. Time and effort invested in preventing management problems is rarely noted when compared to other competing demands for the time and attention of political leaders.

How can those of us in public management change this discouraging equation? We should borrow a page from the advocacy community and start keeping score of agency management in a very visible, publicly compelling way.

Scorekeeping and public report cards have many salutary effects. They can educate citizens about services they rely on and achieve greater mobilization around governance issues. But most importantly, they can prod public leaders to improve operations and services. Thus, when the United Kingdom began publicizing the on-time performance of trains at train stations, the timeliness of the British rail system improved markedly.

In this country perhaps the only compelling rating system we have at the federal level is the Partnership for Public Service's Best Places to Work ratings. Agencies and departments work mightily to get rated near the top of this list.

Might a grading system for the management of governments and agencies accomplish similar performance gains? And how might we get started on something like that?

Well, it turns out that we have already been there and done that, and then left it behind. Beginning about 15 years ago, a unique alliance consisting of the Pew Charitable Trusts, schools of public administration and two government-focused publications, Governing (for states and the largest local governments) and Government Executive (for federal agencies), worked together to research and publish reviews and grades. The grades helped bring new attention to management issues in such areas as human capital, financial management and information technology.

The Government Performance Project, as the effort was known, was no simple popularity contest, like so many other ratings efforts. Rather, the grades were based on a systematic instrument developed with academics, along with a substantial journalistic effort, that involved the gathering of large amounts of data followed by hundreds of interviews.

The comprehensive history of this remarkable chapter in public management -- Government Performance: Why Management Matters by Patricia W. Ingraham, Philip G. Joyce and Amy Kneedler Donahue -- reports that in many cases public leaders anticipated the reports and instituted reforms well ahead of the game. The authors concluded that this ambitious initiative showed how it is possible to assess government management in a way that would pass the standards of academic research and credibility.

The Government Performance Project ended five years ago. Why was it abandoned? Doing this right required significant resources that entailed support from a major foundation. When Pew moved on to other priorities, there were no other funders willing to make such a substantial investment in governance.

It is sad that no loud voices filled the media space complaining about the abandonment of this report card project. But the reality is that while all applaud the high-minded goals behind such initiatives, it is always difficult to obtain and sustain funding over time. Public-management reform simply does not generate sustained interest by any major public-policy actor in our system, whether presidents or foundations. Regardless of their long-term importance, management issues can't compete with the short-term crises that seem to dominate the attention spans of public officials, media and citizens today.

As we think about next year's elections and the resulting power transition in Washington and in many states and localities, one wonders whether the time might be ripe for restarting some kind of public-management scorekeeping project. Some of the candidates are talking about management problems in government and might listen if a serious measurement effort were deployed in the year before they take office.

Management report cards need to be more than a one-time exercise. To have an impact on the attention spans of political and management leaders, it is important that these officials know their management records and capacity will be rated by a publicly transparent review process periodically over a period of years.

Certainly any new and comprehensive effort to grade public management on the scale of the Government Performance project would require a substantial commitment of money and resources by the organizations that undertake it. The scale of funding needed may require commitments by governments as well as foundations to build an initiative that has a chance of surviving over time. But we have a chance to move beyond lip service about government management to real gains in public service. Ultimately, what an investment this would be in the infrastructure of government and the people it serves.

Paul Posner
Paul L. Posner | Contributor