The Promises and Pitfalls of Performance-Informed Management
Monday, March 16, 2020
Our new book, published by Rowman & Littlefield provides some answers to this critical question. The IBM Center for the Business of Government recently helped to communicate them.

Thursday, March 5, 2020 was one of the most exhilarating days of our professional lives. The IBM Center for the Business of Government kindly celebrated the launch of our new book, “The Promises and Pitfalls of Performance-Informed Management" (Rowman & Littlefield), about performance management in states and localities. It’s the first in a five-part “Making Government Work” series that we’re writing.

Though it was sort of a party for us, we were deeply honored to be invited into a room that included such public sector luminaries as the leadership of the IBM Center; Chris Mihm (see right below photo), Managing Director of the US GAO; Sue Urahn,  Executive Vice President of the Pew Charitable Trusts; Neil Reichenberg, Executive Director of IPMA-HR; Beth Blauer (see photo left), Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civic Impact; Kathy Stack (see bottom-left photo), CEO of KB Stack Consultants; Shelley Metzenbaum (see lower-right photo), Principal of the Better Project; Peter Harkness, founder of Governing Magazine; Harry Hatry (see lower-right photo), Senior Fellow of the Urban Institute; Scott Pattison, Principal of Pattison Strategies. And more. Amazingly, many more.

We were also joined in a panel discussion with two of the most thoughtful and respected men in the field, Dave Gottesman, CountyStat Manager of Montgomery County (Md.) and Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor of Washington D.C. (See left below photo.)


We spent some time, ourselves, relating some of the anecdotes of our book (which can be purchased on the home page of our website or elsewhere).

Here are a few of the themes of the book, accompanied by anecdotes we particularly like:

  • Out of Date Measures – While many of the measures on Virginia’s website are timely , in March 2019 when we looked, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s reporting of the number of new jobs created by new and existing companies – a figure that was billed as an annual account – provided information only up to 2016. The Department of Health Measures only provided 2015 figures, possibly due to dependency on molasses-like federal reporting.
  • Unrealistic expectations - While there may be nothing wrong with creating performance management programs that will require a lot of work (they all do), it’s not so wise to paraphrase“Man of La Mancha,” in its song “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” and pass the ununforcable statute.

The Budgeting for Results Act was passed in Illinois in 2010, for example. It called for the state to rank, in order, the efficiency of the programs the state operates, have the budget office come up with a revenue figure for the year and then fund programs, led off by the most efficient, until it ran out of money. No special funding was provided for this Herculean task. By 2018, the initial plan to rank all the state programs was deferred indefinitely. Instead the focus shrunk from all programs to just seven within the Department of Corrections.

 

  • Watch out for performance programs which over-rely on accountability rather than improving performance. Years ago, we grew acquainted with a narcotics detective In the New York City Police Department. A harbinger of so-called “stat” programs was the still relatively new Compstat, in which high-level police officers met with their superiors, all the way to the top to be questioned about instances in which they hadn’t met or exceeded their goals.

These were not easy-going performance discussions, but often turned into professionally threatening environments. Our friend – and remember, this is a guy who was used to confronting heroin dealers in dark corners -- told us the pressures he felt were counterproductive, and potentially led to officers being physically ill because of the pressure. That kind of environment can lead to subtle or not-so-subtle number fudging rather than being hung out to dry in public.

  • One last example for now. Though a whole variety of measures can be useful, it’s important to start with a clear sense of the goals toward which they are aimed. Our friend Sharon Erickson, the recently retired auditor of San Jose shared a story about a time when the emphasis in the city was on cleaning more sewage pipes. The city appeared to be improving its performance by cleaning the pipes that were already in pretty good shape which was good for its measurements. It doesn’t take nearly as long to clean a clean pipe as it does a dirty one.

When the city focused closely on the more important reason to clean pipes – to prevent sewer overflows – the strategy changed. Analysis showed that it was not necessarily major pipes that caused the damage, but smaller and older ones that tended to get clogged. By cleaning fewer pipes – but the right ones – the city has seen its sewer overflow problem slowly decrease.

These kinds of anecdotes are the stories upon which our book is based. It’s always seemed to us that underlying theories about performance management are critical, but it’s the real-world stories that communicate their value.


The IBM Center gave us – and our co-panelists Donahue and Gottesman – a forum from which to tell these stories. Our own goals for this session was to help communicate the messages we found to be most important in writing the book. We hope we accomplished that. We also wanted to sell some books, largely through a ripple effect from the attendees.

Let’s see what happens.

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