How well does government perform in getting done what it sets out to do?

With the vast sweep of the Federal enterprise, it can be difficult for anyone to answer that question with anything close to certainty, and accurate assessments are made even more difficult without access to hard and fast data based on objective metrics.

Late last month, Congress took a little-noticed step toward improving performance visibility when the House of Representatives voted to approve the Performance Enhance Reform Act. The House bill, sponsored by Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, D-Va., would revise existing provisions regarding agency reporting of performance goals.

The bill would include new descriptions of how performance goals are to be achieved including: “(1) the human capital, training, data and evidence, information technology, and skill sets required to meet such goals; and (2) the technology modernization investments, system upgrades, staff technology skills and expertise, stakeholder input and feedback, and other resources and strategies required to meet such goals.”

The legislation would also require an agency chief performance improvement office to provide the description, rather than the current description being provided by any agency’s chief human capital office.

Will it Stick?

A focus on performance, especially on performance measurement now supported with modern data analytics, comes up in “good government” circles every few years, although leadership support, unfortunately, seems to wane just after a brief time.

Rep. Connolly’s initiative, therefore, is a welcome one and could eventually lead to significant reforms for all levels of government – Federal, state, and local. The question is: does government have the stomach for it this time?

Far too often, government leaders have held themselves and their programs above the messy fray of tracking performance metrics. The reasons most cited for this includes employee union opposition, as well as government leadership and program executives who often disparage the process itself, particularly those who have rare experience in the ‘dreaded private sector’ as we called it in Boston when I was CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

To put these arguments in some perspective, I like to cite Gilbert Keith Chesterton, an English writer and critic sometimes referred to as the “prince of paradox.” Ol’ GK was referring to Christianity when he said this, but I use it to describe performance measurement in government. “Performance measurement was not tried and found wanting; it was tried, deemed difficult, and abandoned.” Alas, so true, but also not an absolutely predetermined outcome.

Maryland Experience

For instance, that was not the case for former Baltimore mayor and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who I interviewed a few years ago about his new book on performance measurement. O’Malley is perhaps one of the most recent and foremost proponents of using data analytics to measure government performance. That’s quite evident from his 2019 book, “Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age”.

As mayor a decade earlier, O’Malley was entranced by how New York City had reduced crime to all-time low numbers, while at the same time Baltimore was becoming one of the most dangerous cities in America. Utilizing a revolutionary performance measurement program called CompStat, the New York City Police Department began using maps and colored pins on a daily basis to designate criminal activity across the five NYC boroughs.

Each month the police leadership of one borough took center stage to explain in front of colleagues from the other boroughs and the police commissioner what had been done to address these criminal trends. It was no picnic, as the participants would afterwards attest, but such performance measurement had the desired effect. Crime fell substantially.

As mayor, O’Malley adopted the program. “We put Baltimore on a path for the biggest crime reduction of any major city in America over the next 10 years,” he explained.

In 2006, O’Malley ran for governor and when elected he brought this same kind of government performance approach to the Old Line State. They created StateStat, a dashboard not just for monitoring, but really driving action – in other words, a way of governing. “The data, the map, the measures now in digital format in state government applied to a range of things with tremendous success,” O’Malley said.

That kind of structure, focus, and the requirement for performance metrics was crucial for Maryland’s success. “It wasn’t just about hunch, wasn’t about opinion, wasn’t about intuition, it was based on what’s happening now. And the answer to the ultimate question of are we doing any better this week than we were last week,” O’Malley explained.

While it’s far too early to prognosticate on the future of Connolly’s legislation – let alone its impact on government reform if it becomes law – it is an exciting prospect. Even though the legislation will probably usher in another “chief” designation at Federal agencies – the chief performance officer – the gains likely will be worth the cost. And perhaps run contrary to the Ol’ GK conclusion.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.