About 10 years ago, a friend of mine approached me about building some sort of performance measurement foundation under New York state's human services systems. Fresh off writing Measuring Up!, a book on performance measurement in the public sector, I agreed, figuring it was a good opportunity to practice what I was preaching.

But initially, New York counties -- which administer human services with state oversight -- seemed intent on foot dragging; some even seemed to be edging toward head-long rebellion.

The reasons: Data being collected by the state in 2001 didn't always match up with county data, causing the potential for conflict. Counties were also worried that some information was just too time consuming to collect, and not worth the trouble. With 62 counties in New York, there was the legitimate concern that policymakers would start trying to compare the performance of counties, even though circumstances from county to county in the state can be vastly different.

So it wasn't really the data that county social services officials were afraid of, it was how it might be used and how it might be used against them. The fact was that numerous county social services officials back then understood full well the value of data, and were actually collecting and using it internally.

Fast forward to today and the performance measurement and data collection landscape in New York has done a 180. I can say this with confidence after attending an all-day seminar on integrating, interpreting and using data. Put on by the Cornell School of Labor and Industrial Relations and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the school has been running these sessions for high-level county social services staff for the past three years. Three things are especially interesting about these classes:

  • First, the high level of cooperation that exists today between state and county officials is impressive. The state now manages huge databases that monitor everything from current levels of heating assistance money, to the most prescribed drugs under Medicaid, to all manner of trends in caseload growth and movement.
  • Second, the remarkable ability of the state to do mash-up reports across databases is helping counties do very detailed and sophisticated analyses of things that include who is availing themselves of what services in direct relation to how counties are being billed by providers.
  • Probably most impressive, though, is the level of knowledge of performance measures -- and the various ways data can and should be used -- among the county officials who are now attending the workshops. The questions and the discussions around data are way beyond those of earlier classes.

In fact, those attending the data sessions now have a working knowledge of performance measurement that was simply unheard of 5 to 10 years ago. Those in class now routinely track caseload patterns and are running sophisticated reports on everything from emergency room visits by Medicaid patients to delinquent payments by deadbeat parents.

Just as impressive in all of this is the progress that New York state has made in collecting, analyzing and sharing data with counties. The Office of Temporary and Disability Services, the Office of Children and Family Services and the Department of Health all have staff dedicated to teaching the course and helping county officials access and run both routine and customized reports on everything from trends in food stamp use to which kids might be about to age out of foster care.

State officials are also now working with county social service commissioners to do regular updates of key "dashboard" indicators, while also starting to produce reports that can be broken out by a variety of geographical configurations, including ZIP code and school district.

There is value in these workshops beyond tuning up one's performance measurement game, however. They offer a rare opportunity for those in the human services business to hang out and compare notes.

If you're in a state that may be doing interesting and ambitious work around data and performance measurement, that's great. But I'd strongly encourage you to partner with some organization -- schools of public affairs and public policy are probably the most logical place to look -- and begin doing your own sessions on using data in human services to improve performance. They're not only a good way to tune up data analysis skills, but also a good exercise in trend-spotting and even morale building.