Beyond Buzzwords and Dashboards: Effective Approaches to Performance Management


Connecting state and local government leaders

In a new book, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene assess the state of efforts to improve state and local government operations.

Have you heard the latest about performance management? Managing for results? Evidence-based management? (Fill-in-the-blank)Stat? Performance budgeting? Performance-informed management?

Each of these buzzwords has come in and out of vogue over the years, but all address the same challenge facing public sector managers: “Gauging degrees of success and failure in government work, and then making decisions based on that understanding.”

That’s how Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene describe it in their new book, The Promises and Pitfalls of Performance-Informed Management, volume one in a series called Making Government Work, aimed at students of and practitioners in state and local government. As veteran journalists, Barrett and Greene are longtime analysts of state, county and municipal performance. They currently are senior advisers and columnists at Route Fifty, visiting fellows at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, and senior advisers at the Government Finance and Research Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, among other endeavors.

In the book, Barrett and Greene take a journalistic approach to assessing the state of performance improvement efforts, building on years of work on the Government Performance Project and as columnists at Governing magazine. The result is a readable and timely set of stories—both laudatory and cautionary—about the contemporary landscape. Each chapter includes specific case studies of on-the-ground initiatives.

Government agencies at the state and local levels have developed fairly advanced systems for collecting data on a wide range of activities and programs, Barrett and Greene report. When it comes to action on the information, though, the story is more complicated. As Guenere Knowles, associate director for performance management at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations, told them, “We thought dashboards were going to help inform decisions. But I know that the tons of data that we put out doesn’t get that many views.” 

Sometimes, there’s simply just too much information. In the 1970s, New York City pioneered performance measurement techniques, producing a comprehensive management report on all the elements of city operations it was measuring. “By the early 1990s, the report was about the size of a pre-digital age phone book,” Barrett and Greene write. Since then, in many cities and states, online data repositories on performance have become even more exhaustive—and exhausting. That makes it difficult for managers to prioritize projects and work with leaders in other government units across agency and department lines. 

In Washington state, for example, the Results Washington effort, created in 2013, was tracking 190 different objectives by the end of 2017. “Goal councils,” each made up of 12 to 15 agency directors, collaborated admirably, Barrett and Greene report. But their “work was overwhelming. The meetings for department directors were time-consuming, particularly as subgoals and subgoal councils emerged from the larger groups.” The councils also tended to have discussions about performance management independent of other key players, a common problem in such efforts at all levels of government. 

So Results Washington now focuses on 20 key priorities, leaving the other objectives to state agencies. That means officials can devote their attention to gathering and reporting information that leads to measurable results.

The holy grail in performance-informed management is establishing a link between performance data and budget decisions. In 2018, Barrett and Greene note in one of their case studies, the city of Austin overhauled its budget process, moving from an approach that focused on 300 individual programs to a budget aligned with six areas of focus in the city council’s strategic plan. 

“The dramatically streamlined appropriations process won rave reviews from the city manager, the city’s performance unit, community groups and the city council,” Barrett and Greene write.

The road to success in high-performance government is riddled with pitfalls. Barrett and Greene explore a laundry list of them in the book, including:

  • Insufficient resources
  • Lack of data expertise
  • Weak internal training
  • Counterproductive incentives
  • Fear of adverse reaction
  • Too much hype
  • A limited focus
  • Legislative indifference

In overcoming such hurdles, they write, “it is important to acknowledge that performance management systems are an integral part of government—like budgeting or procurement—and not just an adjunct effort.”

Tom Shoop is the editor in chief of Government Executive Media Group.

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