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Losing Pounds, Gaining Perspective

How a Weight Loss App Brought Me Back to the Basics of Performance Management

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

By Andrew Kleine
January 26, 2020

I’d finally had enough of looking down every morning to see my expanding gut, my, “COVID-15,” staring back. After nine months in pandemic lockdown, with no access to the gym and easy access to the fridge, I was losing belt notches and feeling sluggish and unhealthy. As the holidays approached, I imagined having to ask my wife for elastic pants for Christmas, a humiliation I just couldn’t bear. I needed to find a way to reverse course, to regain control.

As it happens, the solution that has helped me lose seven pounds in seven weeks is based on the same thinking that can help governments deliver better outcomes for residents.

I discovered Noom just before Thanksgiving. Noom is a weight-loss app that promises results without deprivation dieting, pills, shakes or medical procedures. Forbes describes Noom as a, “Marriage of psychology and computer science … using AI and evidence-based guidelines of physiology, psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy.” That’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo. For me, Noom’s secret is rooted in the mantra I have heard myself repeat thousands of times in my 25-year career: “What gets measured gets managed.”

Managing your weight boils down to a simple formula. Change in weight is a function of calories consumed minus calories burned. Noomers weigh in daily, log each meal and track their steps and other physical activity. This data collection is the foundation for a program that employs every performance management tool: goal-setting, root cause analysis, accountability and motivation. Let’s look at how the Noom model is a good fit for government.

Goal-setting. The first step in the Noom journey is to set a weight loss goal and timeline.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else,” may be a Yogi-ism, but it speaks to the importance of goals, be they personal, organizational or for a whole city. Yet, rare is the city, county or school district willing to commit to specific targets for improving results. Elected officials and department heads alike fear the consequences of coming up short—bad press, budget cuts and pink slips.

Noom’s answer to this performance anxiety is to set goals that can be met with sustainable changes in behavior. “Patient targets,” like patient capital, allow room for experimentation and forgive the inevitable setbacks that come with progress. They also allow leaders to break the change needed for performance improvement into bite-sized pieces—like how I swapped out peanuts for popcorn as a happy hour snack—and celebrate small victories that build momentum.

One leader who took this tack was Steve Kelman, the Harvard professor who was tapped by President Clinton to reform federal procurement. Though Kelman had in mind a radical redoing of how federal agencies buy goods and services, he decided to start small. As he explains in his book Unleashing Change, instead of lobbying Congress to pass legislation, he lobbied agency procurement chiefs to double their use of government credit cards for small buys. It was the first of a series of what Kelman called, “Adrenaline shots into the working levels of the system,” and it led to larger changes like the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994.

Root cause analysis. Beyond helping them measure their weight, calories and steps, Noom teaches its users about the relationship between humans and food and how they can break unhealthy habits. Noom’s behavior chain—Trigger, Thought, Action, Consequence—brings to mind the logic model used to understand how government programs turn resources into results. When results aren’t what we want them to be, a good logic model tells us where things are going wrong.

In his book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, Dan Heath tells the story of a group of teachers and administrators trying to improve the graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Instead of resigning themselves to the fact that barely half the students would make it, this group turned to research showing that the key predictors of high school completion are 9th grade academic milestones. They mattered far more than race, income or primary school performance.

Acting on its new knowledge of the root causes of student failure, CPS reassigned its best teachers to freshman courses, reformed its disciplinary policy and assigned teams of teachers to track and support the progress of individual students. The result? From 2008 to 2018, 30,000 more graduates than if CPS had not intervened.

Accountability. The mere act of monitoring performance data on a regular basis makes accountability irresistible. When you see a trend line start moving in the wrong direction, you can’t help but want to figure out how to turn it around. Noom ups the ante in a couple ways. First, it gives users a daily calorie budget based on their goal, age and other factors. Second, it uses a traffic light color system to signal the calorie density of every food you eat.

I’m a sucker for traffic light accountability, because I’ve seen it work. When I was Deputy CFO of the Corporation for National and Community Service during the George W. Bush Administration, OMB gave us a financial management scorecard with seven red lights and two yellow lights. Driven by a mix of pride and shame, my team and I worked feverishly to strengthen internal controls, fix accounting system problems and speed up reporting. A year later, we scored seven greens and two yellows! (Yes, we were excited.)

Motivation. For a goal to inspire the effort and ingenuity needed for success, it has to be more than just a number on a chart. From the get-go, Noom asks its users to reflect on why their goal is important and how achieving it will make them feel. Throughout the process, users are cheered on by a real-life coach, taught how to work through motivation’s ebbs and flows, and even given best practice ideas for replacing “red” foods with “green” ones.

Noom keeps me motivated by adding calories to my budget after every walk and workout. These rewards for good performance remind me of the Baltimore’s gainsharing program, which in its first year handed out $3,000 checks to every fleet maintenance employee for boosting productivity and vehicle availability.

What would Noom for government look like? The-Atlas.com and Govlaunch.com are aggregating local government best practices across a range of services and issues. Imagine if a solid waste manager had at her fingertips service performance benchmarks, curated success stories and customized coaching. I have a feeling that future is not so far off.


Author: Andrew Kleine is the author of City on the Line: How Baltimore Transformed Its Budget to Beat the Great Recession and Deliver Outcomes (Rowman & Littlefield) and recipient of the 2016 National Public Service Award from the ASPA and NAPA. His Twitter handle is @awkleine

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