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The Magic Number

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

By Timothy Dodd
May 30, 2017

When municipal officials are asked to develop and then report on metrics, the reactions are not always positive. Typical responses include “My department’s work can’t be measured by numbers,” and “This ask will compromise my ability to provide the core services of my department.” Many municipal officials do not view metrics as particularly meaningful, nor do they feel metrics will paint their work in a positive light.

The key is that there isn’t a “magic number.” Developing a meaningful metric is something which takes time and thought, and the process cannot be rushed. Often, municipal officials rush to pick a number that is something easy to track and corresponding to a readily available data set.

AspaNumbers - PaulsonTake, for example, the number of people participating in a program. After all, from many perspectives, an increased number of people participating in an event must mean the municipality is doing a fantastic job in providing the event, right? This, of course, does not consider a variety of other variables. In 2015, a summer concert series put on by a municipality attracted 1,300 residents, and the next year, the same concert series attracted 2,000 residents. On the face of it, a municipality could use this metric to paint efforts in a positive light. After all, is increasing the number of people attending a concert a good thing? Does it not show that there is increased interest, which could be tied to the great job the municipality did in advertising the event? Perhaps, but how could this be proven? Better weather, a different performer and different days of the week are a few of the factors that could change the raw number of people attending a concert. Even if these variables did not exist, does the number of people attending a concert matter? What purpose does it serve?

Instead, the municipality should measure its activities designed to draw more residents to the event. Did it take resident input into account while searching for performers? Did it collect data on the number of social media posts it made leading up to the event?

One key to developing good metrics is that they can be controlled by the municipality. While it is fine to start by being impactful with a meaningful goal, such as eradicating homelessness, a municipality needs to drill down to the aspects of that outcomes it can control. Municipalities should all strive to obtain outcomes, but they should not ignore the process needed to get there. Starting with a general outcome such as “providing efficient and transparent services” is a good first step in the process. Officials should not rush into choosing targets, numbers or percentages at the beginning — one reason being that a benchmark is likely unavailable.

After determining an outcome, the next step is to set goals, or the specific vehicles through which a municipality will work to achieve the outcome. Goals should then include specific action items, and metrics associated with each. Metrics may seem basic or like they are not meaningful, but they develop meaning if they are connected to the achievement of an outcome. Once developed, municipal officials should consistently collect and analyze data towards their metrics, and determine what changes need to be made to meet targets.

A CitiStat-type process allows municipalities to ensure that strategic plans do not sit on a shelf and collect dust, but rather allows officials to continue to tweak goals, activities and metrics, as they work to achieve the outcomes. The relationship between an outcome and a metric is never perfect, and that is okay. The process will never work if officials are afraid of failing, as this is a process of trial and error. The key is to have an outcome in sight, and to modify goals, activities and metrics during the process.


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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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.

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