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Performance Management in Government: The Old Is New Again

As they deploy modern, data-driven tools for public-sector efficiency, today's government leaders are building on work that began many decades ago.

For all of the interest and excitement surrounding current efforts to expand performance management in government, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the concept was born in the past decade or two. Yet today's innovative approaches to finding ways to deliver public services more efficiently -- from proliferating "stat" programs to powerful data-analytics tools -- have their roots in research going back to the early part of the last century.

The early work of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, in measuring the efficiency of municipal services, for example, was so well received that it served as one of many catalysts to the development of public-sector performance-management approaches. We published the first in a series of 14 articles focused on "economies," or ways to improve performance in a variety of local-government areas, in Public Management magazine back in July 1932. Five years later, graduate student (and eventual Nobel laureate) Herbert A. Simon, along with then-ICMA executive director Clarence Ridley, authored an article titled "Technique of Appraising Standards," the first in a series on management standards in city administration.

Since those days, we as a profession have labored to move forward the state of the art on performance management. To recognize the establishment of the National Performance Advisory Commission, back in 2008, I wrote here about the importance of communicating accurate, fair and comparable data to residents regarding the quality and efficiency of service delivery. The commission developed a set of commonly accepted guidelines for performance measurement and management based on seven key principles that can be applied to local-government planning, budgeting, management and evaluation.

The connection between government data and performance grows stronger every day. In her presentation at last year's ICMA annual conference, Beth Simone Noveck, the former U.S. deputy chief technology officer who now directs the Governance Lab, described how local governments can make better decisions by accessing not only "big data" -- the vast amount of information accumulated in traditional databases - but also the fast-growing new sources of digital data such as social networks.

And in a recent column in this space, Stephen Goldsmith explored ways that performance systems are increasingly being linked to visualization tools that provide on-the-fly access to government data to just about anyone who wants it. These tools, such as our own ICMA Insights, are increasingly available from a variety of private-sector, public-sector and nonprofit providers and should feature:

• A set of well-defined, common performance benchmarks that enables communities to compare their performance with other jurisdictions.

• A tiered service approach that covers all budget sizes and performance-management needs, from basic summary statistics and integrated reporting to more advanced customizable graphs, scorecards, dashboards and performance forecasting.

• Training and development options that take routine metrics to a higher, more comprehensive level for users.

I think those pioneers of public-sector performance management, were they around today, would be the first to appreciate the power of tools like these and of the modern performance-management platforms that enable real-time decision-making in a culture of continuous improvement. Public leaders who grasp the significance of these new tools and how best to utilize them will be well on the way to delivering the level of government services that today's constituents expect.

Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association
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