Are your performance management efforts being misdirected?

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More than a few local governments have developed impressive dashboards — accessible to officials and members of the public alike — as evidence of their commitment to performance management. The development and maintenance of these sophisticated dashboards represents a substantial investment of information technology time and energy. Arguably, their contributions to accountability can justify this investment, but are these dashboards truly tools of performance management?

Performance management is about more than performance reporting. It is about using data to improve operations, service quality and efficiency. As a professor who studies performance management, I have observed the mistargeting of performance management efforts time and again.  

For real performance management, a sizable portion of the IT investment should be directed toward targets a little lower on the organization chart. Many city and county governments think that performance management is all about collecting performance measures across the organization and channeling those measures — or at least the best of them — up to the top of the organization, where leaders can use this performance information as they make decisions. They think they are doing performance management if they have a system in place that is accomplishing this. But most of the real performance management action occurs at the department or program level, not at the top of the organization.

I find it useful to think of performance management not as a system but as an act. It is the act of using performance information to improve operations, enhance service or increase efficiency. A performance management system is valuable only to the extent that it is a catalyst for acts of performance management.

When public officials tell me about performance management in their organization, they often begin by describing their system. Sometimes they have impressive schematics that show how the performance management system is designed to work — that is, how it is supposed to work. Usually, their system is based on the assumption that better performance information will yield better decisions by persons at the organization’s helm.

But we know from the last decade of research that even among local governments claiming to engage in performance management, the record of improvements has been spotty. We also know that performance management successes, if they occur at all, are more likely to be found at the department or program level than at the top of the organization. It is managers at the operating levels of government who are most likely to have the time and inclination to dive into the performance data and figure out how to make improvements. If they have good performance information and the authority to make changes based on what they discover, here is where performance management successes can be found.

Managers at the department and program level need meaningful decision authority in order to be able to drive performance management success. They also need good performance information delivered in a format that not only alerts them to operational problems but also helps them see the data signals they need to see. The delivery mechanism is important.  Directing IT resources not only to the needs of top executives, elected leaders, and citizens — and especially to the needs of department and program managers — is often an important step in the right direction. Also important is the quality and usefulness of the performance information being delivered to these operating managers.

In my work, I have had the opportunity regularly to teach graduate students and local government practitioners some of the finer points of performance measurement. I tell them that performance measurement is not just about designing measures that will be of interest to top executives, elected officials and citizens. If they are operating managers I encourage them to be a little “selfish” and to design measures that will be helpful to them in their managerial capacity and helpful also to subordinate managers in the ranks below them. Grand measures that reflect the big picture are made-to-order for the community’s annual report and might be the preferred measures of the city council. These are informative to operating managers, too, just to confirm that everything is still on course. But for month-to-month and day-to-day management purposes, managers need more granular, more actionable measures. 

Good performance information that is relevant, actionable and delivered in a manner and format that not only seizes managers’ attention but also is conducive to analysis is exactly what is needed for performance management success. Flashy dashboards designed to inform elected officials and citizens about the local government’s activities and accomplishments are excellent and important accountability tools. To get tools of performance management, we need to adjust our aim and direct the effort to managers at the program level.

David N. Ammons is a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has served on the National Performance Management Advisory Commission and the North Carolina Governor’s Advisory Committee on Performance Management. He’s also the author of Performance Measurement for Managing Local Government, which was published earlier this year by Melvin & Leigh, Publishers.

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