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We Need An App For That: Comparing Municipal Performance, Lessons From Canada

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alicia Schatteman

Schatteman augustPublic performance management is now firmly entrenched with the focus on results and accountability. Governments around the world, at all levels, have invested significant time and resources into measuring and reporting performance with very mixed results. Some are voluntary performance systems. Some are mandated, although those mandated are much fewer. Those considering measurement systems or looking to improve their existing systems often look to Ontario, Canada with a mandated system as an example. The majority of state and local governments in the United States still had not adopted performance measurement programs. There are lessons in the Ontario, Canada example that may indicate why this work is challenging.

In 2000, the Province of Ontario, Canada (Province) became the first state or province in North America to mandate a municipal performance measurement program [MPMP] for all 445 municipalities. The MPMP program seeks to promote “local government transparency and accountability. It also provides municipalities with useful data to make informed municipal service level decisions while optimizing available resources.”

Ontario’s MPMP mandates that each municipality must collect data on a specified number of measures in different service areas, depending on the year. Measures and service areas have been added since the program was rolled out. Municipalities submit their results to the Province by June each year for review and analysis. By September, they must report to citizens.

Municipalities are encouraged to report to taxpayers in a simple and accessible manner, which might include the following:

  • Direct mail to all taxpayers or households
  • Insert with the property tax bill.
  • Notice in local newspapers and the Internet.

Although this program is not tied specifically to provincial funding or transfer payments, the Province encourages municipalities to use their results in their annual business plans and budget reviews for setting new targets and measuring achievements. The municipalities began reporting in 2001. Municipal data must be submitted to the Province using the Financial Information Return.

But how are these results available to the public?  Each municipality chooses how to release their results. Most municipalities will post their financial information returns, including the performance measurement results, in a report posted on their website such as the City of Cambridge, Ontario and the City of Toronto. These reports may not serve the intended goal of accountability and transparency because the information is created in a way that is not accessible.

We can and should do better. Public administration has been studying and producing guides to performance and annual reports for decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, The International City Managers’ Association (ICMA) promoted the idea of better annual reports, which will be discussed in detail in the following section. However, after this time, performance reporting fell out of favor until near the end of the 20th century. In the late 1980s, the reinventing government movement changed from an output focus to an outcome focus, to focus on results, not just the process of managing. Since the 1990s, the performance measurement movement has gained strength and commitment but we are not doing any better reporting on municipal performance.

In 2008, the Province rolled out an online platform called MIDAS. One of the major improvements the Province touted was the ability for municipalities to customize reports and select appropriate jurisdictions to compare their results. You would therefore expect to see more municipalities showing comparative information with other jurisdictions. However, this system is completely closed to the public so the program does not improve transparency to the public. The Province of Nova Scotia has taken the Ontario model a step further by making all reports available and searchable.

Challenges in setting up a municipal performance system

  • Performance measurement systems are of little use, no matter what measures are selected, if they do not inform decision-making and citizens.
  • Adopting a municipal performance measurement system is dependent on a supportive organizational culture.
  • A mandated system is unlikely to be adopted at a state level given the different political culture in Canada and the United States, but voluntary programs may work.
  • Performance data should be reported, but also compared over time and compared to stated performance goals.
  • The process of measuring and reporting performance is time consuming and expensive so the data must be useful to the organization and be more than compliance reporting to a higher level of government like in the Ontario situation.

Best Practices:

  • Increase transparency in the system: Technology should allow for 24/7 access in a format that is customizable. Individual municipalities could also work toward performance reports that best serve particular audiences. Certainly, public managers need more frequent and detailed information than possibly elected officials or citizens. Using technology, results could be collapsed or combined to give an overall sense of performance, with the ability to drill down for more details. The Web-based reporting tools would make this possible and accessible.
  • Use incentives for municipalities to improve reporting performance: Working with municipal organizations and associations, a joint awards program could be structured specifically to recognize excellent performance reporting.
  • Provide the media with access to the performance reporting data. It is their responsibility to bring information to citizens and they would surely be interested in reporting this information. This may result in “bad press” for some municipalities but certainly would improve the overall level of accountability by municipalities.
  • Data must be timely. Performance reporting should be done more frequently, for example, without adding to the workload of small municipalities, and make the data more relevant for decision-making. The more citizens can access good information about the local government, the more worthwhile the performance measurement program becomes for not only staff and elected officials but the community as well.

 

Author: Alicia Schatteman is an assistant professor in the School of Public and Global Affairs, Department of Public Administration and the Center for NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, Newark. The author can be reached at www.nonprofitscholar.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to We Need An App For That: Comparing Municipal Performance, Lessons From Canada

  1. Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. Reply

    September 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    I hope that, one day, performance management will be “firmly entrenched” in the public sector. But that day seems far off to me!

  2. Arthur Asbury Reply

    August 28, 2014 at 10:14 am

    It is time to reduce the redundant layers of Government. We have rejected “standards” and reason in America in favor of political suicide. In my home county of Cheatham, Tennessee, population 40,000 current residents, there are 4 tiny municipalities with Mayors, Boards and Commissions plus a County Mayor with all of its Boards and Commissions plus multiple police and fire units without regard to any established standards of need. There are multiple water and sewer, gas and electric utilities…. We have all forgotten ” plan, organize and manage/direct” which are the reason for being out of Control. Our State is still of the opinion that local control is the path for public services and education. I gave up University teaching because of lax standards and the fact that students refused to meet standards and thought that we just handed out diplomas without regard to learning. This is a serious issue and also applies to armed conflicts…. Thanks for trying to bring back standards in products as well as in Government Administration.

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