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The Dark Ages of Performance Management: COVID-19 Recovery Programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma

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

By Samuel Kurtz
April 29, 2022


Cities across the United States have been successful in acquiring much of the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding distributed to their state. These cities have developed a variety of programs to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which include collaboration with private and nonprofit organizations in community assistance and recovery services. Amongst these, Tulsa, Oklahoma has been a leader. Tulsa has employed their portion of the CARES Act funds in part by restructuring Federal CARES Act dollars as geographically limited project-grants available to private and nonprofit organizations.

The Mistakes

The City of Tulsa also failed to develop adequate performance management systems to optimize service delivery. Specifically, the City of Tulsa allows recipients of CARES Act Relief Grants to select how performance is measured and managed, as well as the specific aspects of the service that constitute such performance. The inevitable variance between organizations concerning such decisions facilitates an environment in which the City of Tulsa can neither compare performance across organizations nor compare performance across time. This latter facet is important because it neutralizes any opportunity for policy learning by the City of Tulsa.

Further, the City of Tulsa allows recipients to self-evaluate with respect to this measurement of performance. This is a suboptimal management decision on behalf of the City of Tulsa because it increases capacity of the resource-dependent recipient organization to act on conflicts of interest. In fact, in any environment in which there is both (1) interdependence and (2) the recipient organization has the discretion to choose how their service delivery is monitored, there exists both capacity and reason for the recipient organization to present data that is more favorable to itself. Large and robust private and nonprofit organizations, particularly those with marketing departments, are able to specialize some of their labor in the presentation of such data. Under such conditions, cities are de facto blindfolded; relying on pseudoscientific annual reports and PowerPoint presentations to make decisions that determine the extent to which we can address the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Tulsa loses in this deal in ways that it does not even realize, but this is a ubiquitous story that we are beginning to uncover in cities that simultaneously restructure block grants as project-based grants and employ cross-sector contracting in public service delivery. Even state agencies fail to adequately monitor services. The CARES Act Supplemental State Plan led by the Oklahoma State Department of Commerce entails only nebulous and broad forms of monitoring—providing little guidance on data management, what is to be measured or how it is to be measured. The State of Oklahoma’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) finds in its evaluation of Oklahoma’s distribution of COVID-19 Relief Funds that CARE FORWARD’s implementation of these dollars was not transparent and was both inconsistent with Oklahoma’s required guidelines on data and record provision to independent oversight and failed to maintain a methodology for explaining proposal rejections.

Even the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s plan for spending COVID-19 relief from the Community Services Block Grant Act mistakes the act of monitoring itself for monitoring tools. Where such tools are discussed, they are imprecise and insufficient. To avoid similar mistakes, LOFT’s investigation recommends both training on funding decisions by the State Office of Management and Enterprise Services and the reporting of data to the National Council of State Legislatures to make state comparisons. It may behoove cities to follow a similar path.

Why This Happens

The decision to structure cross-sector service delivery in such a way is not an accident. It is exactly the way we should expect such service delivery to be structured given the following facts. The complexity of monitoring performance has been delegated to individual and isolated public managers. While in some ways an artifact of New Public Management, in another way it leaves public management empty-handed, being provided no consensus on how to address such questions. Further, public managers are provided with no institution through which collective learning about the monitoring of private and nonprofit actors can advance. Instead, each generation of public managers is destined to relearn the mistakes of contract management. That is, if they can even observe them in the first place.

Why We Must Tie Monitoring Mechanisms to Accountability Structures

Despite these interorganizational dark ages, public managers and researchers are provided experiences that lead them to ask questions concerning the performance of such services. To name a few:

– Which outcomes matter?

– For what activities should governments monitor the process of service delivery rather than merely outcomes?

– What resources should be employed to conduct such monitoring?

– To what extent does monitoring impact trust and relationships between actors?

– Under what conditions can governments trust the data provided by nongovernmental actors?

– To what extent does information collected aid in holding contractors accountable?

It is the answer to the last question that makes the difference between an optimized performance management system and an excel sheet inspired by another TedTalk on “Big Data.” Specifically, the process of monitoring service delivery organizations is only relevant to public problem solving as far as such data is used to improve service delivery. Per the recommendations made by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency concerning the State of Oklahoma’s failure to adequately distribute COVID-19 Relief, spending should be benchmarked to performance indicators.

Escaping The Interorganizational Dark Ages

In these interorganizational dark ages, the public is sentenced to rely on information from either (1) fire alarm institutions, i.e., organizations that act as watchdogs specializing in the delivery of specific services or (2) self-reported and incomparable metrics produced by private and nonprofit recipients of public funds. However, the nature of public performance is such that without adequate monitoring, we cannot know the status or success of our public services. Only by optimizing monitoring can we begin to exercise a span of control in service delivery and learn how to solve wicked problems.

Author: Samuel Kurtz is a Ph.D. Candidate of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is an active member in the Networks and Governance Lab. His research interests include cross-sector service delivery, contract management, performance management, economic development, housing, and long-range planning. Email: [email protected]. Read more about his work at civicsamerica.com.

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