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Counting Widgets Versus Solving World Hunger: The Relationship Between Output and Outcome Measures

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

By Tim Dodd
April 7, 2017

Since the beginning of CompStat in New York City in 1987 and CitiStat in Baltimore in 1997, municipal officials across the country are continuously asked to develop metrics. Municipal metrics help develop systems of transparency and accountability. Whether as part of a strategic planning process, outcome based budgeting initiative or “stat” meeting, officials are often skeptical of metrics for two key reasons.

First, they view the metrics are numbers or percentages that simply “count widgets,” or second, they see them as “pie in the sky,” impossibly unachievable lofty goals. Outputs focus on numbers or percentages related to core services provided by a municipality, such as the number of people who participate in a community concert program, the number of tweets by a department, or the percentage of senior citizens who attend events at the senior center. Outcomes focus on the achievement of an ideal state, such as the eradication of homelessness, improving customer service or making streets safer. The reality is these two types of measures are linked to one another, as outputs often influence the achievement of an outcome.

goals peopleMunicipalities need to keep track of multiple data sets for various reasons. The number of library books checked out, the number of children signed up for a youth soccer program and the number of permit applications filed all serve various purposes. However, just because these data sets are collected does not mean that this information should be used in performance management approaches to “move the needle” on an outcome.

Metrics play a key role in any performance management program, but they must not be the first step. To determine what to measure, an entity must first decide what they are trying to accomplish. The first step in this process, whether it occurs through a detailed strategic planning session or a truncated goal setting meeting, is setting clearly defined goals. Common municipal examples range from “increased use of parks” to “improved customer service.” Often, these goals contain targets related to the outcome a municipality is striving to achieve. After goals are established, a municipality must then decide the steps necessary to achieve the goal, typically referred to as “action items” or “activities.” Finally, you must develop metrics, which are connected to action items but tie back to the achievement of the goal.

Looking at numbers or percentages certainly tells part of the story about the performance of a municipality. However, data should always be released with a narrative that places the data into the appropriate context, including the history of the issue, trends, key achievements, major challenges and future goals and targets. A comprehensive approach to setting goals, followed by metrics, ensures municipalities develop metrics which effectively connect to the achievement of the organization’s goals.

Author: Tim Dodd is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Santa Monica, CA, previously serving as the Performance Manager for the City of Baltimore and Director of Performance Management for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [email protected]

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