Many states and localities collect performance measurement data but don't necessarily make good use if it. In Iowa, a group of cities has used the data to make real changes in policy as the result of a program that actively solicits input from citizens' panels. Under a $1.2 million foundation grant, the Iowa League of Cities partnered with a pair of universities to help nine cities--ranging from tiny farm towns to Des Moines--match city managers and council staff with citizen volunteers to find out what the locals cared about the most. Each city chose two services to examine, but overall the project touched on the whole range of municipal affairs, from police and EMS to nuisance controls and recreation centers.

"A lot of what citizens wanted, we were already measuring," says Jeff Schott, city manager of Marion, one of the participating cities. However, improved communication among all the stakeholders led to some real changes in policies governing landfills, abandoned buildings and traffic control.

The program, known as the Iowa Citizen Initiated Performance Assessment, not only helped city officials learn what their citizens wanted, it left the citizens who participated--among the most vocal and active in their communities to begin with--with a better sense of the challenges facing their governments. "It was very, very good for the citizens to see the constraints that the city has to deal with," says Becky Morelock, president of a Des Moines neighborhood association.

Some of the cities that participated are expanding the number of services they're now examining in this way, and about 10 other states have expressed interest in copying the model, according to Tom Bredeweg of the Iowa League.