The ether swirls with data like rain in a hurricane. Public managers are supposed to capture those drops; categorize them by source, content and value; allocate them to appropriate receptacles and set about reading them like crystal balls. You can think of all those data in the aggregate as the core management tool of 21st century business.
If it hadn’t become clear, however, management observers recently have noticed that for all the mimicking of the private sector that most management systems endow, the public sector’s adoption of private sector management tools does not itself make for effective management. Howard Riser recently made this surprisingly obvious point about standard business practices: “the business management practices—strategic planning, goal setting, performance measurement, etc.—do not explain a company’s success. Every business, including those that fail, relies on those ideas.” He could have added to his list– collecting a lot of data.
Whether public or private, the love affair with data is mostly a photo-shop romance. The imagined value of data is growing in local government as managers feel pressed to join the big data stampede or to measure lots of activities because measurement is good. Savvy local government managers, ahead of many colleagues, gather performance data intending to improve efficiency and community quality of life. They may have the protocols for uniform data collection, barrels of ‘clean’ numbers, analytic software to crunch those numbers, comparison data from other jurisdictions that follow the same data collection practices, but those public managers still can fail.
To understand what failure is, it’s important to know what success is not. In performance management, success is not timely accumulation of tons of clean and relevant data that, with good comparisons, can be used to tout the fact that government collects data or even to encourage department heads to provide better services more cheaply. Success, built atop those basement dungeons where data often are tortured into talking, is measured in the metrics of a better place to live. Making data work toward that goal takes more than good data accumulation and analysis. It takes leadership committed to using the data for the benefit of the community.
Mark Rockwell noted in talking about the success of IT projects that, “This is not really a technology problem as much as a skill and cultural one. Culture is the biggest issue.” Tech will not solve America’s problems any more than a downpour of data without motivated leaders who insist on making the data useful.
Strong local government managers will demand that the data they collect and curate be used to change things for the better. That will mean budget, personnel, communication or policy changes that are data-driven. It often will mean relying on ‘bottom line’ data – resident opinion about community quality – to guide how data will lead to transformation and to determine if actions result in progress or regress.
Metrics matter but management must turn numbers into action.