August 21, 2019

Roadmap to Mastering Fact-Based Government Improvement

Formula for Government Improvement diagram
Illustrations by Jessica Riehl

This post introduces the Government Performance Consortium, which is working to advance a new approach to performance management by growing a community of practice and offering an open-source toolkit of resources that promote a focus on outcomes throughout the chain of command.

Contributors: Chelsea Lei, a civic researcher who co-created the Government Performance Consortium and led the Municipal Dashboard Project; Steve Gorcester, the former executive director of the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board who pioneered the award-winning TIB Performance Dashboard; and Larisa Benson, host of the Government Performance Consortium and former director of Results Washington (then “GMAP”) and performance audits for Washington State.

People in government want to use data to inform or drive decision-making, but common barriers keep that an elusive goal. Many performance management efforts in governments focus on concerns such as which software to use for data warehousing and visualization. Few focus on what we see as an almost universal barrier governments face in using data: the difficulty in knowing what should be measured in the first place.

The biggest gap we see today stems from public managers struggling to explain how the day-to-day work of departmental operations connect or align with the high-level visions of their elected councils and mayors. The lack of clarity about how to measure desirable community-level outcomes, and around expectations of how the work at the frontlines contributes to achieving those outcomes, creates confusion, frustration, disengagement, and distrust.

As a result, measurement becomes an exercise in cobbling together some numbers to satisfy the reporting requirement rather than becoming an integrated way of doing and improving business. The problem is made worse when leaders have competing views and priorities may shift with each administration change. And the challenges are only compounded when technology-driven solutions become the focal point, competing for the attention, talent, and resources needed to support daily service delivery.

Through the Municipal Dashboard Project hosted by the Government Performance Consortium, we have been working to help remove these barriers by building a community of practice for local government practitioners in Washington State. We recognize that decisions about why, what, how often, and for whom to measure are local, and there is no simple one-size-fits-all approach to measuring performance. At the same time, we believe it is possible to accelerate the understanding and adoption of leading practices by offering a standard roadmap for mastering fact-based government improvement. By creating open-source resources and shared templates, and hosting regular convenings of cross-jurisdictional peers, we are able to accelerate governments’ organizational learning. Users can more readily identify and adopt measures that really matter to inform decisions and make improvements.

In the spirit of inquiry, we created model dashboards for organizing, measuring and interpreting key results in two common areas of municipal operations and service delivery — finance and streets. These dashboards present a “whole systems view” of how operations and improvement activities in these service areas are integrally connected to community conditions and contribute to department-level and government-wide outcomes.

We developed these models through our own research and practical experience, and engaging local professional experts to crowdsource ideas and gather feedback. Our primary design principle was that the performance dashboards should display measures that indicate the intended outcomes of a municipal agency or program instead of just the data they happen to have. Similarly, an agency should go beyond measuring how much work gets done (portfolio metrics) to include what it’s trying to accomplish (outcome metrics) and how it plans to converge on goals (strategic metrics).

We asked our community of practice to engage in learning conversations about this central question: What learning becomes possible when everyone sees the whole service delivery system they are a part of? The common theme that emerged from these conversations was that the best and highest use of data and dashboards in government is for collective sensemaking, storytelling, and social learning (that is, learning from people trying to do the same thing as you).

“You learn how to become a team,” says Connie Anderson, deputy director of Administrative Services at the city of Sequim. “I think it’s very helpful to understand where everyone falls into the whole process of service delivery.”

“It becomes possible to drive change in behavior,” said Eunjoo Greenhouse, deputy director of Finance and Business Operations at King County. “What we find is our dashboard becomes very useful to our customers. They can see how they contribute, how they impact the speed of our delivery and our error rates.”

“We learn to ask questions based on the story the data shows and also seeing what needs to happen because of that story,” said Patrick Zellner, street maintenance manager at the city of Renton.

“I think one of the great things about [having a whole-systems-view dashboard] is that you can tie in these real-life targets for work people [on the frontline] are actually doing with the strategic goals that they don’t normally see or have a hard time seeing,” said Erik Sloan, pavement manager at the city of Tacoma. “It helps you learn how your work, even at the most basic level like filling potholes, connects to those larger strategic goals that your agency or neighborhood wants to achieve.”

Reflections like these inspire us to believe that the people of government will pursue exceptional results with the right facts and a clearly stated purpose. Measurement and setting targets are critical elements of the improvement process. What we need is to help one another overcome the key barriers unique to the government sector, taking good ideas and examples from learning networks like the Government Performance Consortium and continuously adding our own ideas to advance fact-based government.

We have put together a free and open-source Municipal Dashboard Practitioners’ Handbook as a living learning journal of strategies, tools, stories, and examples for transforming government from the inside out through effectively using data to inform improvement. We invite you to join us in conversation and in continued learning and exploration.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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