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The Case for Data During a Time of Crisis

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

By Tim Dodd
October 30, 2020 

For nine years, I worked for a state and two cities, overseeing and coordinating performance management programs. That entire time, I was on a quest to move performance management from the “nice to have” column into the “must have” one. While they may not call it performance management, all businesses, large and small, use data to drive decisions. If salmon is not selling at a restaurant, they are probably going to take it off the menu. If a certain car is getting bad reviews in a trade magazine, the manufacturer will likely consider modifications based on the feedback received from consumers.

Yet, in many (although certainly not all) governments, performance management programs are seen as additive to existing work. Often, performance management programs are created in the “top office” of a city, such as the mayor’s office or the city manager’s office. Especially when the organization is headed by an elected official, the tenure of those working in the top office is usually much shorter than that of those working in departments, bureaus and divisions spread across the organization. Because of these short tenures, and the fact that many of the staff members in the top office are only there for a few years, long-time government employees often view the initiatives of this office as fads that will go away over time, rather than becoming part of the way that the government operates. Additionally, they view this as additive—not a part of the way that their organization operates, but often as additive work that shrinks the time that they have to do their regularly assigned work.

My goal, over nine years, was for performance management to move from being a “nice to have” to a process that became ingrained into the culture and processes of an organization. I continuously argued that the use of data to inform decisions should be as much of a part of the city culture and its processes as the processes to hire and recruit staff; purchase and implement new software and business applications; and develop and implement a budget. I hoped to do this while also building a system that did not become stale by ensuring that leaders embraced it. The hope was that, regardless of who held the top executive job, and regardless of what their goals where, there would be an ingrained process to help them set, monitor, achieve and celebrate success in those goal areas.

Sadly, I never achieved that goal. Two of the three performance management programs I worked in were eliminated during changes in administrations, and neither elimination surprised me. After all, both were created by the top official in an organization (one was elected, one was appointed), and the long-time employees in both organizations viewed it as “that person’s program.” The program started when the top official started and he or she accurately predicted that it would go away as soon as they left office.

One of these program eliminations occurred because of deep budget cuts necessitated by the financial impact of COVID-19. Times of financial crisis require an assessment of programs as necessities, or nice-to-haves. Unfortunately, performance management is seen by many in government as a nice-to-have. As a result performance management has been, and could potentially be, on the chopping block in cities due to budget cuts necessitated by the impact of COVID-19.

Yet, while the pandemic certainly presents challenges, it also presents opportunities. I view the pandemic as a make-or-break time for performance management systems—when forced to make cuts, will governments see it as a nice-to-have that should be eliminated during challenging fiscal times, or can they embrace it as a systematic way of using data to inform decisions and respond to the challenges presented by the pandemic? Several governments have already embraced this approach, creating COVID-19 dashboards to track cases, testing, hospitalizations, hospital capacity and the positivity rate. Additionally, many have used this data to make informed decisions ranging from the placement of testing sites to modifying the use of buildings and facilities to assisting local businesses with recovering from the pandemic. Hopefully, this use of data will not be seen as a fad and, as we enter the long recovery period, governments see the value of using data to inform a variety of decisions.

Now more than ever is the time for local governments to embrace the use of data to inform decisions related to protecting their residents and informing recovering decisions related to the pandemic.


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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