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When PerformanceStat Comes to the Legislature

A New Mexico legislative committee is believed to be the first to try the management approach in a lawmaking context. It’s an effort that bears watching, and some lessons are being learned.

New Mexico state Capitol
New Mexico’s state Capitol building.
(Zack Frank/Shutterstock)
Last month, New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee did something that we believe no other legislative committee in the U.S. has done to date: It launched a “PerformanceStat” initiative. It’s an experiment that bears watching by lawmaking bodies everywhere, as well as by advocates of evidence-based government at every level.

The PerformanceStat process — as pioneered in New York City for policing and then expanded into the general public-management sphere with initiatives including Baltimore’s CitiStat and Maryland’s StateStat — involves ongoing, data-driven performance reviews between leadership and departments or divisions. Unlike check-in meetings that most organizational leaders run, where the focus is on the hot topics of the week or month, PerformanceStat meetings keep coming back to the same set of organizational challenges until they’re fixed.

New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee adapted the PerformanceStat approach to a legislative context, dubbing it “LegisStat.” Instead of a mayor or governor running the meeting, the leadership team was the joint House-Senate committee itself, led by the committee chair.

The broader goal of launching LegisStat was to change the dynamic of the typical committee hearing, which is often dominated by lengthy agency presentations. That leaves little time for questions by committee members, including efforts to get at the most important performance problems and trends. To quote one committee member, “we as elected officials on the committee often feel like potted plants, mainly sitting there listening to agency presentations.” Lawmakers also wanted discussions to be more data-driven than in the past.

The pilot LegisStat meeting, in August, involved three agencies — labor, economic development and tourism — and focused on New Mexico’s economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic. As the committee chair (Patricia Lundstrom), a staff member to the committee (Charles Sallee) and a consultant to the committee supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Andrew Feldman), we’d like to share five lessons from this inaugural effort.
LegisStat committee meeting underway in New Mexico.
LegisStat committee meeting underway in New Mexico.
The first lesson is that getting to root causes of agency performance challenges is more difficult with LegisStat than with a traditional PerformanceStat, but it is doable. As background, a core aspect of the PerformanceStat approach is the ability to push agencies to answer the “whys” of a performance challenge: The chief executive leading a traditional PerformanceStat meeting can keep asking questions of agencies or divisions that unpack the root causes. It might sound something like this:

Chief executive: “Why aren’t we meeting that goal?”

Agency representative: “We don’t have enough staff.”

Chief executive: “Why don’t we have enough staff?”

Agency representative: “Because of certain HR hiring rules.”

Chief executive: “Why do we have those HR hiring rules?”

And so on …

In a LegisStat context, however, there are maybe 20 committee members rather than one chief executive doing the questioning. That means that questions can move from one topic to another without getting to the root of the problem. To address that, a suggestion is to choose a few focal topics ahead of time and have the committee chair play an active role in facilitating the discussion. That includes encouraging members to drill down into issues and asking “are there any other questions on this topic?” before moving on to the next.

A second lesson is to keep opening remarks by agency leaders very short. That eliminates the chances for lengthy agency presentations that can sometimes feel like filibusters. LegisStat limits opening remarks to 10 minutes, leaving the bulk of the two-hour meeting for questions and discussion driven by the committee.

A third lesson is the need to ground the discussion in data, just as it is with the traditional PerformanceStat approach. With LegisStat, committee staff created handouts focused on each agency that described key performance trends, with accompanying graphs, and suggested areas of focus for the discussion. The staff also kicked off the meeting with brief presentations about those trends before turning to agency heads’ opening remarks.

A fourth lesson is about creating a focus on accountability. Legislators are not the “bosses” of the agency heads presenting to the committee, so unlike with traditional PerformanceStat sessions they can’t direct those executives as a mayor or governor could. The tone of the meetings, therefore, is more collaborative. Even so, the committee and agency heads agreed to several action items to be accomplished before the next LegisStat meeting. The workforce agency, for example, was tasked with creating a strategy to address “child-care deserts,” areas with few providers. And the economic development agency was tasked with conducting an analysis of the state’s hardest-hit sectors in terms of employee shortages.

A final lesson is to build the LegisStat process into the budget cycle. Although the first meeting was a standalone one, subsequent meetings will occur in the fall and spring, woven into budget meetings as a special focus during the first hour of those sessions.

Hopefully, LegisStat in New Mexico will continue adapting and expanding. In fact, two additional meeting topics are being added for this fall, on K-12 and higher education. But August’s kickoff meeting showed the value to a legislative committee of taking a fresh approach, getting rid of the “potted-plant” problem and having a member-driven, data-focused discussion of priority agency performance issues. If more state legislatures are able to launch their own LegisStat initiatives, it could help strengthen their role as not just funders of agency programs but as drivers of their results.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Founder and principal consultant at the Center for Results-Focused Leadership
Chair of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee
The deputy director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee
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