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Take the Time to Ask the Time

By "time stamping" data, government managers can use that data to operate their programs more effectively and efficiently.

Time, most government managers would tell you, is not on their side. But used correctly, time can become a powerful weapon in a good manager's arsenal. How? By "time stamping" data they collect about transactions and events, and using the data to inform agency and public decisions, managers can use time to operate their programs more effectively and efficiently.

Last week I set out on that most bureaucratic of rituals: a trip to my state's Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license. The DMV suggested I check wait times online before departing, so being a dutiful good-government wonk and not eager to waste time sitting in a DMV office, I logged onto their Web site. Only a 16-minute wait for a license.

Not bad, I figured, and grabbed my keys.

When I arrived, I headed to the customer service line, where a clerk handed me my number. B258. How long would I have to wait? Illuminated signs told me the number currently being called was B215. I did the math. Forty-two people in front of me and 14 service windows. It looked promising. Assuming all windows were open, only three people needed to be served at each window before they called my number. It was 11:45 a.m. I'd be out in time to grab lunch before my afternoon conference call.

Wait. The sign flashed again: F145. That meant there were six sets of numbers all running at the same time and all being served by some subset of the same 14 windows. I steeled myself for a long afternoon in bureaucratic hell.

As a consumer, I was livid. But as a consultant and educator who helps government agencies appreciate how useful performance measurement can be, I realized the moment offered a teachable opportunity. My DMV experience illustrated a use of performance data government often overlooks: the ability to organize data not only to improve agency decisions and ultimately societal outcomes, but also to inform individual decisions in ways that provide a better fit for the varied preferences and needs of those government serves .

By posting wait times online in real time for each office, my state DMV made a valiant effort to inform local residents so we could avoid long waits. But clearly, real-time wait statistics alone were not enough. Demand apparently surged between the time I checked the Web and when I arrived at the DMV.

How could the DMV improve the way it shares data in the future so others are less likely to repeat my experience? If the DMV also posted graphs showing me historic wait-time averages for different times of the day, days of the week, and weeks of the year, it would have let me plan in advance the best day and time to visit the registry office. It would have also helped me predict whether the wait time I read on the Web site was likely to hold up.

Time-of-day, day-of-week and week-of-year measurement turns out to be incredibly useful information for agencies that must respond to external demand for government answers, assistance or permission, such as drivers' licenses and construction permits.

Time-stamping transactions enables agencies to improve their performance in two key ways. They can manage staff supply, adding people in high-demand periods and reducing staff levels in slow times. They can also manage consumer demand. By sharing with the public information about historic wait patterns, agencies can shift demand in ways that reduce peak-period loads and make the supply side easier to manage.

If the DMV's decision to take the temporal nature of data into account affects my ability to get lunch, in other situations time-stamping data can be a powerful tool to prevent harmful incidents, injury and death.

Take the U.S. Coast Guard. One of its regional offices began tracking the time pattern of oil spills. It discovered that most spills took place at night, and knew that most inspections took place during the day. When it shifted some inspections to the evening hours, oil spills dropped significantly. Time-stamping can help agencies prevent unwanted events when harmful situations are associated with causal factors that have a temporal pattern.

In the coming months, I look forward to sharing with readers other stories such as these, illustrating the many productive ways government agencies can use goals and measurement, with and without incentives, to make government more effective, efficient, equitable, responsive and accountable. My hope is that readers of this column -- diverse users with diverse needs -- will come away knowing how to tap the power of performance management for their own agencies.

As for my run-in with the DMV: my number was finally called at 12:45 p.m. Elapsed wait time: one hour, nearly four times longer than the website suggested. I think I'll shoot the DMV director a copy of this column tomorrow -- see if I can get her to "take the time to ask the time" to serve her customers better, reduce peak-period stress on employees and improve overall operational efficiency.

Shelley Metzenbaum was a GOVERNING contributor. She is the director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.
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