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Target Practice: Defining Optimal Performance

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

By Amy Johnson
August 14, 2015

During a July 21 interview with President Obama on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Stewart asked, “Do you feel like you hit the metrics you wanted to hit?”

Mr. Obama replied, “You are always going to fall short. If you are hitting your metrics that means you didn’t set them high enough.”

Graphic Courtesy of SnarkHunter

Graphic Courtesy of SnarkHunter

One could argue that if performance targets are set thoughtfully and effectively, attainment or “hitting your metrics” represents delivery of optimal levels of performance. A series of performance-related benchmarks are set for each critical operational measure to drive organizations and operations toward the desired end state for delivery over a defined period. President Obama recognized this later in that same interview, saying that we need to figure out how to “set the right benchmarks to know we are making progress and moving in the right direction.”

The challenge comes in defining optimal levels of performance. In delivery of government services, the difficulties of identifying the right performance targets are exacerbated because the population served through a program can be constantly in flux. For instance, on any given day people get sick, lose jobs, have babies and experience any number of life events that put them in a position where they need to interact with government. Even if a program successfully met the needs of 100 percent of the individuals who required its support today, there will be a new group of individuals in need of its services tomorrow.

How can government managers set the right performance targets and work toward attainment of optimal levels of performance?

First, managers need to review the mission or purpose of the organization or program. What was this organization or program created to accomplish?

Second, managers must begin to translate accomplishment into quantifiable outcomes-based metrics. If the organization or program were to accomplish its mission, what would that look like? How would the organization quantify that?

A manager might look at target metrics from industries that provide similar services or whose services require the execution of similar activities (e.g., customer service functions) as inputs. The resulting metrics become the desired end state.

Third, managers need to use data to understand the current state in relation to the desired end state. What is the current level of performance against each key metric?  The manager would want to consider how the service is currently and has been resourced in the past as that could impact delivery times as well as error rates.

In setting good targets, managers need to balance delivery times with the cost and quality of the service. The manager would compare past data to the desired end state for context and make smart decisions about the trade-offs required to meet the target. At this point, the manager might refine his or her desired end state to support the right balance between time, quality levels and cost. This becomes the optimal level of performance.

Finally, managers can build a set of benchmark targets for specific periods that drive the organization or program to close the gap and progress toward the goal of optimal performance.

This is the process outlined in it simplest form. Once an initial set of performance targets and benchmark targets for key measures have been set, it is important to consider the cost of goal attainment and to weigh the costs and benefits against achieving optimal performance in other parts of an organization or mission areas. Then, performance and benchmark targets may need to be adjusted to align to priorities (e.g., extending the period required for goal attainment if optimal performance in a certain mission area is a lower priority).

Performance targets are an essential and sometimes overlooked element of a good performance management strategy. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, how will you know how close you are to hitting the mark?  This seems obvious. But often because data collection within the government begins with ad hoc requests, targets when set, are developed without context or real consideration to the levels of performance that are actually desired.


Author: Amy Johnson has almost two decades of experience working with public and private sector clients in the areas of program and process evaluation, strategic planning and organizational performance management. She serves as the director for nonprofit and civilian government programs at Coverent, a consulting firm focused on helping clients use data analytics to measure program performance and maximize mission impact. Contact at [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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