When Lisa Calise Signori took over as head of budgeting for Boston in 2003, one of her first official decisions was borderline heretical: She eliminated the mayor's management report--long considered akin to the Bible among public-sector managers. "It wasn't helping my mayor make informed decisions," she says. "By the time the report was published, the data was no longer useful."

Calise Signori reasons: "We shouldn't keep using a tool that was created decades ago just because it was the way things were done." The city, she says, needed a tool for the present; it needed a tool that would provide real-time data, helping the city to see immediately if it was on target in meeting budgetary, administrative and service delivery goals. Besides, Calise Signori says, the mayor's management report missed the mark. "This is about performance and accountability in government on a day-to-day basis," she says. "It shouldn't be a process or product that gets handed to policymakers and citizens once a year."

A handful of private vendors apparently agreed. Starting in the late 1990s, a trickle of software programs debuted aimed at helping states and localities to better monitor spending, activities and results in real time. Today many players, large and small, have jumped into the game, offering a dazzling array of products and services that come with an equally dazzling array of sticker prices--from eye-popping to bargain basement. The basic questions around acquiring such software, of course, include whether to buy off the shelf, go boutique or take a crack at creating an in-house solution.

Calise Signori can't remember how many vendors responded to the city's initial RFP when it went shopping to upgrade its system, but the mayor and cabinet members were determined to find new tools because data collection and management in Beantown were fragmented, episodic and idiosyncratic. "There were homegrown tools on people's laptops all around the city," Calise Signori says. That led to many "ownership issues." In addition, there was virtually no integration of data citywide, no use of data to drive real-time decision-making and no transparency for citizens who wanted to know how well government was responding to their concerns.

Calise Signori wanted an easy-to-adapt software program that would allow Boston to track all sorts of key indicators. She wanted a program that would provide flexible ways to do data analysis, such as allowing city officials to gin up a variety of customized reports; allowing managers to include explanatory notes with their data; and helping connect dollars, actions and results. Most important, the system had to do all that and not require a twin Ph.D. in IT and statistics to use.

The city found a small software company that was doing a lot of work with the private sector on collecting, integrating and reporting on budgeting and performance. "I was extremely impressed with how it integrated resources and performance metrics," Calise Signori says. "When we upgraded our performance system in 2006, it put us light years ahead of where we'd been. It wasn't just a computer tool; it was a full-blown management system." As an added bonus, the new system allowed for putting performance reports on the city's website for citizens to check out, and allowed managers to create strategic plans and tie a plan to results in relation to resources.

Like Boston, the New York State Office of General Services (OGS) also was an early adopter of performance-tracking software. Becky Meyers, who oversees the office's performance management system, remembers how many companies the state found that proposed to help her agency--very few.

In 1998, the OGS got serious about strategic planning and performance measurement. After a fairly exhaustive national search, and working with a consultant, the OGS turned up about a half dozen potential vendors. "There was really only seven or eight, and of those, only a few had products we thought could really help us," Meyers says.

Like Boston, OGS staff had been cobbling together various homegrown systems for reporting and tracking performance measures. Two things made choosing a software provider relatively simple. First, they found a small software developer with a product that matched the OGS-developed systems rather well, and second, the price was right--less than $100,000 for initial installation and user licenses.

Cost obviously is a huge part of the equation when finding a software package to fit a state or city's needs, which is why some places have opted to build their own systems using existing business intelligence software. That's what the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services did when it created its ambitious performance measurement and management system EHSResults.

"To keep costs down and to make sure we didn't have any problems down the line with integration of products, we used an application that is part of our existing business intelligence suite of products," says Melissa Pullin, who coordinates EHSResults for the department. "I'm sure we made some functionality trade-offs by using that software, but it works OK for us."

Alternatively some officials have shopped around for bargains, which is what Matthew Birnie, county manager for Gunnison County, Colo., did when he went with a small start-up software provider, even getting a bit of a break by acting as a guinea pig for the new product. "Cost is a huge issue for a jurisdiction our size, and we had some vendors who basically wanted to charge us half our operating budget for a performance management system," Birnie says. "When our vendor came out with their software, we agreed to be a beta site at a very reasonable cost."

While a relatively small outfit--Gunnison County only has 225 employees and a $60 million budget--its portfolio of responsibilities is nonetheless considerable, ranging from running hospitals to airports. Still, the county hasn't had to do much tweaking of the software to use it, and it allows everyone from managers to policymakers to easily go from strategic plans right down to front-line operations. If there was any challenge, it was the same challenge every jurisdiction that wants to travel down this road faces: getting people to actually use data to budget and manage. "The county had a well deserved reputation as being well managed," Birnie says, "but you still have managers who've been around for 20 years and they had an established way of doing things."

The same was true in Boston. "It was fascinating to watch as we rolled our system out because we had some managers who love data, and then the ones who like to manage by walking around," Calise Signori says. But it was the system's versatility that brought everyone around. The system allows managers to get multiple reports at all different levels of an organization. They can track against goals or monitor progress by past performance. Handiest of all, it helps them literally do street-level cost analysis that can inform policy.

For example, Boston citizens too often exercise a time-honored ritual of stripping the license plates off their clunker automobiles, leaving the cars abandoned on the street for the city to deal with. In response, the city's Transportation Department launched a citizen education campaign emphasizing the potential value of old cars for parts, scrap and as donations to charity. The city is now tracking towing trends to see if the campaign is making any difference.

And ultimately it is that kind of utility by which all these systems should be judged, says Chuck Half, city performance manager for Pittsburgh. "The software is important, but where I spend 60 percent of my time is not on the system but on using the system to improve day-to-day performance." The question at the end of the day, Half says, is whether "the software is helping us to work and govern smarter."