Governments frequently invest in initiatives to evaluate a program’s progress. The fundamental steps of determining what constitutes genuine success and how to achieve it, though, are often overlooked.

State government leaders broke down such issues Thursday at Governing’s leadership forum in Raleigh, N.C., where pubic officials from across the state gathered to discuss a range of subjects.

John Turcotte, director of program evaluation for the North Carolina General Assembly, suggested shifting the role of program evaluators back to their intended purpose. Managerial, operational and investigative reviews occupy much of the workload for program evaluators. Instead, Turcotte said governments should focus on whether programs are actually effective.

One way for states to accomplish this is to implement clear rating systems for programs, Turcotte said, citing the now-defunct as an example. He also said that it’s important for agencies to set long-term goals but they must also outline intermediate objectives to get there.

Even when goals are defined,  a lack of curiosity on the broader results often plague decisions, said Jonathan Womer, the state's chief information officer. Too much of the focus is placed on efficiency, while other areas are ignored. “It’s inherent among us to really understand the effect we’re having on society,” Womer said.

To better evaluate an organization’s process and outcomes, Womer suggested managers draw a picture of it.

For James Trogdon, chief operating officer for the state Department of Transportation, evaluating programs becomes more challenging when working up the chain of command. The best strategy, he said, is to first devise high-level objectives. Then, administrators should establish goals for each business unit to support the overall aim of an organization.

In an era of downsizing, officials too often emphasize solely doing more with less, said Patrick Ibarra, co-founder of the Mejorando Group, a consulting firm specializing in assisting governments. Across the board cuts typically don’t work. Instead, Ibarra said officials should concentrate on what governments do well, while becoming more of an “aggregator” in other areas.

With shifts in the economy and other changes, it’s difficult for governments to project the future more than two years down the road.

“Government leaders need to be more comfortable with ambiguity and not allow that from preventing them from moving forward,” Ibarra said.