Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Just Measuring Government Performance Is Not Enough

Just Measuring Government Performance Is Not Enough

By Dennis D. McDonald

The Washington Post article this past week Why not measure how well government works? asks the reasonable question, “Why aren’t more government programs evaluated?” Also asked, is “Why aren’t government programs that are evaluated and found wanting just canceled?”

These are good questions. The Post article, by Jim Tankersley and Dylan Matthews, touches on some significant and problematic issues:

  • Complex programs are inherently hard to evaluate.
  • Performance measures are difficult to develop.
  • Politics.
  • Bureaucracy.
  • Resistance to change.
  • Entrenched interest groups.
  • Who likes to be evaluated?
  • Who should be responsible?

All of these things are true to different degrees. But they are not reasons for despair. In fact, I think we are in a better position now than ever before to hold government programs accountable based on this Administration’s actions in making government operations more transparent.

Let’s start with the fundamental question, “How do you measure whether or not a government program is a success?”

There’s no simple answer to this question, even when you focus on outcome and benefit measures and not just on intermediate measures such as transaction volume or cost. There’s no getting around the fact that measuring performance takes time, money, and planning, especially if you are trying to do so in a logical and consistent fashion.

Just because measuring performance is difficult is no reason not to try. If you’ve been paying attention to the admirable efforts at OMB and you’ll see what I mean. Creating and sustaining measures for within-agency and across-agency reporting takes time and there is no guarantee that outcome measures can be traced back to the original legislative or reauthorization language. The foundation is being laid by such programs to making government performance more accessible — if they are continued and supported, as I discussed in Developing Digital Strategies for Web-based Public Access to Government Performance Data.

Also, blaming legislators for not incorporating specific outcome measures as legal requirements is too simple a criticism. Evaluation and performance measures should be in ingrained and automatic components of all government programs whether specific measures are defined legislatively or not.

That gets us back to looking again at the bullet list displayed above. Given the difficulties associated with measuring the performance of government programs, should we throw up our hands, give up, and just let things play out messy realm of public debate?

Obviously not. Even though I’m a firm believer in measurement, though, I do think we need to supplement whatever we do about performance measurement with continued improvements in making government programs more accessible and transparent.

As I suggested in A Framework for Transparency Program Planning and Assessment, this means making the data associated with both the internal and external aspects of government programs more available to the public. Government programs need to make public, all along the way from their point of origin, data describing all aspects of program goals, costs, operations, staffing, participation, and usage. Such data need to be available and accessible without artificially imposed access restrictions or fees that might effectively discriminate against members of the public possessing modest resources. You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in statistics to interpret the data about the government services you’re receiving.

I’m aware that “the devil is in the details” when it comes to defining terms like “open” and “accessible.” This is why I believe that any government program that publishes data about its operations or effectiveness online should also make available the names and contact information of staff that are knowledgeable and can meaningfully answer questions about that operation. (See Better Org Charts Will Improve Government Agency Transparency and Accountability.)

Whether you consider this suggestion to be part of government becoming more “social” in how it interacts with the public is up to you. I just think that making government program staff identities public is common sense, for several reasons:

  • Most public companies provide multiple channels for interacting with them. Why shouldn’t government?
  • Providing public access to a “live” government official would make real-time responses possible. This would be helpful when changes in operations occur more often than, say, the quarterly reporting that a departmental website might provide.
  • Improved public access to knowledgeable and empowered public officials would also provide members of the public with improved access to the officials’ own professional networks and their shared expertise.
  • Improved access to these “inner circles” and their expertise could significantly improve citizen understanding of and appreciation for the real world benefits provided day in and day out by government services

Given the high level of mistrust that currently exist among the electorate for government in general, the value of such potential improvements should not be underestimated.

In summary, we need to look at three things if we want to respond to effectively respond to the real world difficulties associated with measuring government program effectiveness:

  1. We need to continue pressing government to pay more attention to measuring and assessing — in public — the performance of government programs. “It’s too hard” or “It’s too expensive” are not valid excuses. Efforts to develop and evaluate performance should be open to discussion and interpretation by all.
  2. We need continued improvements to online access to data about government programs, how much they cost, and how they operate and perform. One way of looking at this is that, even if we can’t agree on concrete measures of effectiveness, we should be making data available to the public so that they can develop and publicize  their own measures.
  3. We need better citizen-government communications that can not only provide better and more up to date information about how programs are operating. This will not only inform the public about what government does, it will also also help dispel the “faceless government bureaucracy” impression that does nothing to improve public confidence in government services.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald

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