Time to Rethink Performance Measurement

Despite the contemporary erosion of of facts, it’s impossible to run large organizations without credible observations about what’s happening and, separately, what’s working. Performance measurement helps with both and can be as deliberate as Baldridge Key Performance Indicators or as impromptu as “How’m I doing?” made famous by former Mayor Ed Koch’s ad hoc surveys of random New Yorkers.

Thought leaders like Ammons , Hatry and Holzer have made the case and offered conceptual frameworks for measuring performance in the public sector, especially with an eye to comparing results among jurisdictions. Across the U.S. and Canada, there are scores of jurisdictions that measure and share their performance data. Regional performance measure consortiums (Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Ontario) remain active and ICMA , no longer offering a software platform for sharing performance data, continues “to advocate for the leading practice of creating benchmarking consortia.” All performance measuring consortiums want “…municipalities to compare themselves with other participating units and with their own internal operations over time.” Other jurisdictions track their own performance and publish results without the benefit of knowing, or letting others know, how they compare.

Measuring performance in the public eye is gutsy. Local governments actively involved in public performance measuring should be lauded for participating in a show and tell that doesn’t always reveal any one place to be best in class. Despite the value of measuring performance, the percent of jurisdictions actively measuring and publicly reporting performance is a small fraction of the 5,500 U.S. cities or counties with more than 10,000 inhabitants – those with enough revenue (probably between $8 million and $10 million) and staff to handle the effort. Across the five consortiums listed above, there only are about 120 jurisdiction participants.

Why don’t more jurisdictions participate in collaborative benchmarking ? The risk of looking bad is no small deterrent but neither are those stringent standards imposed to equate each indicator across jurisdictions. Measuring performance takes meaningful staff time to define extensive collection criteria so that indicators are similar enough to be compared to other places or in the same place across years. For example, police response time sounds like a simple metric, but should the clock start when a call comes in, when the police receive the notice from dispatch or when the patrol car drives to the location?

When a large number of indicators are identified for tracking, the staff time to collect them explodes. For example, in the Tennessee Municipal Benchmark Project there are 22 measures captured for code enforcement alone by each of the 16 members as reported in the 426-page annual report for 2015. The report also covers 10 other categories of municipal service.

We need to lower the barrier to entry and expand the value of participation. The “measure everything” approach has been found to be intractable and the detailed work required to equate measures remains a tough hurdle. If we choose a small set of indicators that offers a stronger dose of culture (outcome measures of community quality) than accounting (process measures about service efficiencies and costs), we will reduce workload and likely attract the interest of local elected officials.

Imagine a few key indicators that report on quality of life, public trust and governance and city operations. Then visualize relaxing the requirements so that any measure of response time could be included as long as the method for inclusion is described. Statistical corrections could be made to render different measures comparable. This is what National Research Center does for benchmarking  to equate survey responses gleaned from questions asked differently.

Besides the time-cost barriers to entry, there have been too few examples of the value of the performance management ethos. We know it’s the right thing to do. But we also know that with relatively few jurisdictions collecting common metrics, researchers are hampered from exploring the linkages between government processes and community outcomes. Too often comparisons among jurisdictions become a game of “not it,” whereby staff explain away the indicators that show their jurisdiction to score poorly. When we expand the number of places willing to participate, we can build statistical models that suggest promising practices by linking processes to outcomes.

We can broaden participation in comparative performance monitoring when common metrics are few, targeted to outcomes, easy to collect and proven to matter. It’s a good time to make these changes.

Submitted by Thomas I Miller


One thought on “Time to Rethink Performance Measurement

  1. A very practical article on creating practical metrics. Could staff create a metrics system? Do we have to hire outside consultants? Finally, does the media expert have control of releasing outcomes?


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