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The Surmountable Barriers to Measuring Performance in Government

The tools could be better, and organizational inertia is an issue. But those problems can be overcome. It's worth the effort.

Ruler measuring a binder
(Shutterstock)
Few concepts have swept public-administration circles like performance management has. But as the saying goes, you can't manage what you don't measure. While many governments say they're committed to tracking their performance and managing accordingly, few have really delivered. One of the weakest links in performance management is performance measurement.

I spent 40 years in local government, and I've talked to numerous finance directors, department heads, and city and county administrators about performance measurement. What I've learned is that while there are numerous causes for the disconnect between management and measurement, inadequate tools and organizational inertia are the top culprits.

Step one in performance measurement is establishing metrics (some call them targets or key performance indicators). But most governments struggle to collect and analyze this operational data (such as how many people fall on broken sidewalks each month) and financial data (such as how much those falls cost the government each month).

Step two is measuring performance against metrics. Most governments that have gotten to this phase track their performance via tools like Excel or performance-measurement dashboards that require manual updates. It's an extremely cumbersome and time-consuming process. In fact, officials in one California county told me that they used to track their performance on a quarterly basis but that the process of updating Excel was so tedious that the quarterly reports became bi-annual reports, and then stopped altogether. As one county official said, "We're busy running a government. We don't have the time and energy to manually track metrics." But how can you effectively run your government if you don't know how you're performing against your metrics?

I'm not aware of any tools that tap into operational and financial data and automatically update and track performance against an organization's metrics. So for now, inadequate tools are a major barrier to running effective performance-measurement programs. Too often that issue becomes an excuse that prevents governments from trying new things. But as inadequate as today's tools are, they need to be put to use, whatever the effort required.

Another cause of resistance to change is organizational inertia, and a major component of that inertia is fear. People worry that if they try something new it will backfire and they'll lose their jobs. But I think the real concern is they worry that they're underperforming and that closely tracking their performance may bring that to light.

Lots of people in government also worry that they'll be judged solely on the numbers. As a finance director in the Rust Belt told me, "It's going to be hard to get the chief of police bought into performance measurement. Let's say the police department has a metric like closing five illegal massage parlors each month. Then one month no massage parlors are shut down. The mayor may think the department is slacking when in reality the chief of police intentionally saved budget from the month and rolled it over to the following month to do a major raid."

Fear of being judged purely on the numbers isn't unreasonable, but there are simple fixes. When I was the administrative services director and treasurer for the city of Sausalito, Calif., for example, my performance-measurement dashboard had a comments section called "Explanatory Variables." This is where department heads could provide context for each metric to ensure that the mayor and city council were getting the whole picture.

Here’s an example of how that worked: One of the most important metrics for any police department is, of course, to reduce crime. But factors beyond a police force’s control can work against that goal. A couple miles north of Sausalito is San Quentin State Prison. Occasionally, during California’s state budget crises, large numbers of prisoners would be released early to make way for new prisoners, which could produce a spike in crime. The dashboard’s comments section provided a way for the police department to help elected officials understand the reasons for fluctuations.

As that story illustrates, the barriers to an effective performance management can be overcome. It's worth the effort because there can be tremendous benefits. An analyst in a Northern California city told me that she wants to roll out a performance-measurement program to help her city council make better-informed decisions about increasing or decreasing funding for programs. Without the kind of data the city's elected officials need, the council now largely relies on department heads' subjective perspectives to make funding decisions.

But the analyst knows that tracking performance will make those conversations more productive and result in the council increasing funding for programs that are working. That, she said, will "help us run a more effective government." There's no better argument for doing whatever it takes to measure governments' performance.

Director of government finance solutions at OpenGov
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