Performance Management: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

June 11, 2015 10:00 am PST | Effective Governing

“When information’s just tossed out,” states Don Kettl, “people sit there and try to figure out, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, highlights strategies for meaningful performance management at the 2014 Socrata Customer Summit.

Too often, explains Kettl, “one-size-fits-all approaches to information, to performance, to management” fail, leaving audiences disengaged and uninformed, and causing data producers to miss opportunities to impact public life. They can reclaim their chance to make a difference, Kettl argues, by communicating problems and performance with visualizations and other revealing data tools. This takes datasets from obscure to actionable, as Kettl shows with three open data success stories.


Ridding Rats Instead of Managing Programs

Kettl highlights the collaboration in Rat Rubout, Baltimore’s rat management program: It involves multiple city agencies, from health to housing to human services. First, the city started using maps to track citizens’ reports. Seeing a picture of the problem helped to assess the circumstances influencing it, as well as which agencies were on the hook for solving it. They became a team tackling the problem. The way the reports were communicated — through creative visualization — changed rat control into “a problem that has to be solved, not a program that has to be managed,” Kettl argues.

Visualizations, Kettl continues, help create incentives for agencies to work together, by displaying who has which stakes in the problem and how well agencies are tackling their piece of it. From there, language is created for collaboration, and ultimately for culture change. “The very presence of the rat management map changes the conversation instantly, in a way just talking back and forth never would,” Kettl asserts.

Tracking Accountability in the Recovery Act

Kettl’s next example: the approximately $800 billion pumped into the U.S. economy by the 2009 Recovery Act. The Obama administration, Kettl says, wanted to distribute funds as quickly as possible, but knew the huge amount of money spread over so many areas and jurisdictions could result in fraud, waste, and abuse stories that would devastate performance and plague the administration.

They solved the problem by creating an online performance management system to show how the money was being used, by what agency, in what location. Any citizen could input any address in the country to find out what the Recovery Act was doing, specifically, on a local level. “Performance information presented in the right way breaks through barriers and cultures and forces conversations,” Kettl emphasizes.

Mapping for Safer Neighborhoods

In 2010, federal agencies stepped up their performance measurement following passage of the Government Performance and Results Act. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), noting the high rate of violent crime on reservations, set itself a performance goal of reducing incidents by one percent. The Office of Management and Budget, Kettl recounts, told BIA “That’s not a serious commitment; try harder.” BIA came back with a proposal for a five percent reduction.

The result was phenomenal: a 35 percent reduction on the four reservations where BIA made significant effort. “There was a guy,” Kettl explains, “who believed in performance.” The BIA agency worker set a team of people to work computerizing reservation crime data. This allowed BIA and reservation law enforcement to spot clusters of problems, including days, times, and places that proved more susceptible to violent crime. Then they applied predictive policing, which not only solved crimes, but also “created a sense within the community that people cared,” and encouraged people to report, explains Kettl.

The simple act of counting and displaying the data “transformed everything and brought violent crime down 35 percent.” The needed information already existed, Kettl notes, but in big, unwieldy stacks that patrol officers didn’t have opportunity to access effectively. When the need was combined with accessibility, the information could finally be used to spread limited resource by targeted policing.

Conversations Solve Problems

“If you’ve got the information, that’s great,” Kettl notes, but that’s only supply. Governments also have to answer demand for information, by communicating performance in a way that makes sense. Information is most valuable, Kettl continues, “in being able to build bridges and change cultures because it creates the opportunity for conversations that would not otherwise happen.”

“We often talk about measurement as being incredibly important,” Kettl says, but “performance is not about measurement.” At its core, Kettl states, “Performance has to be about communication.”


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