Plugging In

Performance measures are finally being taken out of the box and applied to agency plans and budgets.
March 2006
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Periodically, we find ourselves spending money on various implements that promise to help us keep a neater, cleaner household. Last August, we were drawn to a super-fancy vacuum cleaner that looked a little like it was developed by NASA. Here's the problem. The time between purchase and actual use can be startlingly long. Seven months later, that vacuum cleaner is still in the original box, which is itself gathering dust.

We bring this up not to expose our housekeeping habits but because it is a metaphor for the way many cities, counties and states have used performance-based measures in the past. They collected them, sometimes analyzed them and occasionally utilized them for internal use. But relatively few were actually presented in an accessible, understandable way. Like our vacuum, they were potentially useful but never really taken out of the box.

Here's where the good news steps in. Over the course of the past couple of years, we've seen progress. More and more states and localities are creating genuinely useful reports out of their measures. And, as with virtually all information, the ease of the Internet has made them widely usable.

"The state of the art now includes reporting," says Mark Abrahams, president of the Abrahams Group, a consulting firm that specializes in managing and budgeting for results. "A few years ago, it didn't."

Some exemplary reports can be found in the "Iowa Results" effort. The Iowa Department of Human Services Performance report, for instance, connects its measures to a broad strategic plan and the agency's performance plan. One of the agency's goals is reunifying children with their families. How's it been doing? The report shows that the percentage of children in foster care who have been reunited with their families has gone from 81.1 percent in 2000 to 84.1 percent in 2004.

One of the noteworthy things about the Iowa report is that it doesn't shy away from bad news. Memos from Governor Tom Vilsack address particular concerns as well as positives. In the last report, he noted that violent crimes against individuals over 65 were at a five-year high. This isn't the kind of thing likely to attract the AARP vote, but without taking note of the negatives, reports lose credibility. This happened under the Giuliani administration in New York City, when the Mayor's Management Report--a generally useful document--started to look like a press release.

Another impressive example: In 2004, the Arkansas Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care released a report assessing the quality of care received by the state's 600,000- plus Medicaid recipients. The report compared results from its own primary-care physicians to information created by the nonprofit National Committee for Quality Assurance, which collects data on the performance of managed care organizations.

Progress was tracked, in many instances, for individual counties, showing where service improved over a two-year period and where it declined. The report found that Arkansas did better than national Medicaid averages on immunizations but that percentages of young children with up-to-date immunizations declined slightly from 2002 to 2003. Annual dental visits were also better than national Medicaid, but with a sharp drop for families whose incomes were marginally too high to qualify for the regular Medicaid program in 2003.

Governmental leaders who want to create useful performance reports have been helped by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which developed 16 criteria for good performance reporting. While some of these are just common sense, they give entities a solid set of guidelines for putting together this kind of information, such as including objective analysis of major results and comparative data.

In addition, the Association of Government Accountants has developed a Certificate of Achievement in Service Efforts and Accomplishments Reporting. Its scoring system is similar to that used by the Government Finance Officers Association for its Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting, and there's no question that the GFOA certificate has been a powerful incentive for governments to prepare their books in line with a high level of standards.

The biggest obstacle to performance reporting isn't hard to divine: Accountability is a hard sell to the people actually being held accountable, especially since citizens aren't exactly marching on city hall demanding these reports. So, although progress is clear, it's not going to be overwhelmingly speedy. And that's OK. We intend to take out our vacuum cleaner tomorrow. Maybe.