A Better Way to Link Policy Analysis and Performance Management

Results-based accountability measures results in the real world.
by | March 2014

Operation Breakthrough, a Kansas City social service agency founded in 1971 by two nuns, sits in one of the poorest parts of the city. It serves about 400 kids every day, 98 percent of whom come from families who live below the poverty line. About a quarter of the kids are homeless and another quarter are living in foster care.

Operation Breakthrough is one of dozens of nonprofits and government agencies trying to improve the lives of children and families in the city’s urban core. It’s clear that some of these agencies are doing vital work well. Yet Sister Berta Sailer says that conditions in the neighborhoods served have steadily worsened over the decades.

“How is it possible,” asks Mark Friedman, “to have all these successful programs while conditions get worse?” This paradox forms the starting point for his 2005 book, Trying Hard is Not Good Enough. Friedman, who has more than 30 years of experience in public administration and public policy, has developed “results-based accountability,” a system of performance improvement that is radically different from “logic models” and other more widely known approaches to policy analysis.

For most of my government career, I used logic models. When I came across Friedman’s work, I was struck by the power and utility of results-based accountability. Logic models assume a linear relationship between actions and results that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. And the strategies that policy analysts produce are often top-down. Friedman’s approach is cleaner, simpler, more practical and less elitist. It’s designed to answer three questions: How much are you doing? How well are you doing it? Is anyone better off? Think of it as policy analysis and performance management for populists.

The point of social service programs is to improve community conditions. But what about the fact that an individual program cannot do this? Friedman shows how to do “population accountability” at the city, county or state level and “performance accountability” at the program or agency level. Then he shows how to put the two together to demonstrate the linkage between population and customer results.

One strong convert to Friedman’s system is Connecticut state Rep. Diana Urban. When Governing named her a Public Official of the Year in 2010, it called results-based accountability “the defining aspect” of her career. She says it lets legislators become a “functional part” of effective policymaking and cites a results-accountability review of the state’s school-based health-care centers. The review documented that the highest use of the centers was for mental health issues and that the centers also were helping to reduce absenteeism by providing onsite health services. It showed that per-student cost was very low, resulting in funding for additional school health centers.

“The highest form of analysis is using intellect to aid interaction between people,” the late public policy pioneer Aaron Wildavsky wrote more than three decades ago. Friedman’s work shows in practical terms how language and common sense can be used to allow people to find common ground and improve their communities.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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