Performance measurement is key in public administration. The purpose of performance measurement is to make things better and to exceed the bar, rather than merely meeting it.
Yet the unfolding firestorm at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) illuminates a looming danger, when the numbers become more important than larger questions about integrity and adherence to a public service organization’s core mission.
Let’s recall how it began.
The world was a very different place in 1993, when performance measurement made a heavy landfall in American government, spearheaded by Vice President Al Gore. Government under newly inaugurated President Clinton dreamed big.
The Persian Gulf War had ended; NATO intervention in Bosnia had not begun; the Soviet Union had dissolved less than two years earlier, and in this pre-9/11 world, terrorism was not the global force which it has become today. Osborne and Gaebler wrote the book whose title said it all: Reinventing Government. Reinvent it did, by inspiring the National Performance Review.
Government began a forward march towards efficiency with measureable results, used for benchmarking and to improve performance continuously. It was a work in progress.
The caveat: Performance measurement is a tool in human hands, but this tool can be misused. What happens when the numbers become an organization’s fuel, rather than the odometer?
The underlying motivation in the VA scandal was generating favorable numbers for veterans’ healthcare appointment wait times; apparently this is one indicator on VA performance reports. Instead of hiring more workers or making operations more efficient, VA staff allegedly gamed the system and developed fraudulent methods to make the wait times appear shorter on paper, cooking the performance books. Instead of correcting the problem, they covered it up.
We have seen this pattern in other contexts, including law enforcement and public education. The New York City
Police Department (NYPD) has used “productivity goals” for a long time, and it collects data on arrest numbers. Another data measure tallies stop and frisk encounters, although up to 90 percent of those stopped were innocent, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
These policies overtly changed following the inauguration of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and his appointment of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. Commissioner Bratton declared in a video aired in January, “I want to focus on the quality of police actions, with less emphasis on our numbers and more emphasis on our actual impact.”
In the world of public education, an official White House policy statement has recognized the prevalence of lowered educational standards under the numbers-driven mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A federal study reached the same conclusion five years ago.
Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan testified, “NCLB unintentionally encouraged States to lower their standards so that more students would appear to be proficient, even though they weren’t…The exclusive focus on tests, and disregard for other important measures of success, forced teachers to teach to the test.”
Sometimes, the “numbers problem” runs deeper, as administrators and faculty in one Georgia school district allegedly helped students cheat on standardized tests. There have been other occurrences of administrative cheating, as in one Las Vegas school where three staffers were investigated.
Fortunately, under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), there’s a marked difference in assessment design, away from the NCLB accountability system. Now students must not only arrive at multiple choice answers, but they must also explain their reasoning. Requiring an explanation makes it harder to cheat and emphasizes critical thinking skills. These new assessments incorporate essay questions, as well.
In theory, performance measurement is an improvement tool.
If the numbers prompt healthcare workers to delay treatment, public safety officers to make citizens feel unsafe, and schools to diminish education quality, then these social institutions have failed. There, the numbers harm instead of help.
Hopefully, sweeping policy changes will come to the VA, as they have for the NYPD and America’s schools. We are still assessing the results of those reforms, but these are steps in a better direction.
At the VA, it’s also tragic that whistleblowers could not speak sooner about the alleged numbers game gone horrifyingly awry for as long as six years. Those working in organizations may turn a blind eye to practices which raise red flags, or they may simply accept the status quo. They could fear retaliation, ruined careers, and worry about how else to support their families. Those are legitimate concerns.
Yet even when doing the right thing is not always easy, it must still be done; that’s key in public service, too. Even in our algorithmic, digital modern world, there are still some things which the numbers can’t – and shouldn’t – measure.
As Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke aptly noted, “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”
Remember those words while striving for a more just public administration.