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Building a Performance Management System to Stand the Test of Time

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

By Andrew Ballard
May 11, 2018

The popularity of adopting performance management systems in public institutions is well-known these days. As scholars have said in recent years, “everyone is measuring performance.” In general, we have a good idea of what it takes to adopt a performance management systems, meaning going from no system of performance information reporting and use to some system of performance information reporting and use. However, we often see cases where these well-intentioned and often successful programs fizzle out and fade away. A recent paper published by researchers at Rutgers University seeks to understand what it takes to keep these efforts alive for the long haul and how to sustain a performance system even when the winds of organizational priorities change. Below are a few key findings and how we might translate them into real sustainable performance management.

The first step to thinking about performance in the long term is acknowledging that these efforts don’t often come for free. It’s common for organizations to adopt performance and not dedicate resources solely to maintaining the various analysis and reporting routines. Rather, managers will either designate an existing staff member to pull double duty or spread responsibilities across multiple individuals in the organization. As many small and medium-sized governments are already lightly staffed, this can create a scenario where the staff is having to decide between their normal duties or dedicating the requisite time and effort to conducting meaningful performance audits. This phenomenon has been described as the “performance paradox,” as the intent of performance is to allow organizations to do more with less but in this scenario, organizations can sometimes do less with the same. It’s recommended that organizations dedicate an individual solely to the performance management process. The history of performance suggests that the investment often pays off in the long term. Otherwise, perhaps organizations without these resources may need to moderate their expectations of performance efforts and begin with one or a few small-scale initiatives to test the waters.

Secondly, again thinking about resource dedication, is be wary of white-glove performance software solutions that come jam-packed with pre-designed measures. The first cause for alarm should be the lack of evidence suggesting performance-specific software results in any better outcomes than just using your existing platforms. CitiStat in Baltimore, TransitStat in Cleveland and countless other highly regarded performance systems started with excel and many have stuck with it. Additionally, there are countless free data analysis tools and visualization services that can do the same things as subscription-based performance software. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the tendency to fit your own operations into pre-designed indicators either used by these software tools or other organizations. Benchmarking is indeed a useful practice, but it’s preferable that you design your own measures that speak to the nuances of your own organization. Not only will these measures likely be more relevant in the long term but one of the fundamental exercises of any performance system is measure creation which involves thinking critically about how you do what you do. Stick to the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Aggressive yet Attainable, Results-Oriented, Time-bound) model and you won’t be one of the many subjects in the Rutgers paper who said: “Well, our indicators don’t really measure what we do.”

Finally, the sooner you transition from a top-down performance system to a bottom-up style the better. This might seem to run contrary to popular belief that a strong executive leader is needed for such an endeavor. However, this suggestion doesn’t deny the importance of a strong executive to kick-start the performance system. Often there needs to be such a catalyst to initiate organizational change. The problems arise when the executive leaves. By many accounts, the CitiStat program in Baltimore is a shadow of its former self. Much the same can be said for StateStat in Maryland. What is the common thread? O’Malley left and the new executive didn’t want to live in his shadow. In Cleveland on the other hand, the system that Gail Fisk started is still thriving now that Gail Fisk is gone. Why? Because the various operational units had junior performance analysts embedded in them for years who then slowly began working their way up in the organization. Now, many of the mid-managers in the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority came through the performance program and have created a unique culture of data and accountability that has withstood the storm of leadership transition. Importantly, this does not suggest strong leadership is not important. Instead, it suggests that a robust performance management program should mature such that it informs the overall culture of the organization. This way, there will be a demand for such practices regardless of who is running the place.

Author: Andrew Ballard is a research fellow at the Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration who specializes in the implementation of performance management in government and study of performance data interpretation. He is also Managing Director of the National Center for Public Performance. Andrew received his Ph.D. in Public Administration in 2018 from Rutgers University.

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