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You Don’t Have to Be a Whiz Kid to Use Performance Metrics

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The Urban Institute’s Harry Hatry is one of the pioneers of the late 20th century performance measurement movement. He has just released a new guide on transforming performance measurement that sums up his best practical advice in one place.

Harry Hatry is legendary. His indefatigable commitment to measuring government performance stretches back to his days as a Pentagon analyst on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s fabled Whiz Kids team before joining the Urban Institute in 1968.

He helped revitalize the performance measurement movement in the early 1970s as a part of national efforts to assess and manage the many civilian programs that grew out of the War on Poverty. The earlier performance measurement movement, which grew out of the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s, focused on reporting financial information. Hatry says: “Beginning in the 1970s, the key element of the performance measurement movement has been the focus on measuring outcomes, that is, the results of services . . . to improve the lives of citizens.”

He writes in his new guide that the current performance measurement movement has entered “a major new phase” that embraces greater analysis of performance information as well as an increased emphasis on performance management—using performance information to make evidence-based decisions.

Hatry says three sets of limitations tend to inhibit most existing performance measurement systems in organizations at all levels of government:

  • Data. Usable information produced by most performance measurement systems has been limited.
  • Analysis and Reporting. The data available has not be analyzed and interpreted to make it useful to decision-makers.
  • Use. Performance information is not fully used by public managers to make decisions, “most likely in part because of the limitation mentioned above.”

He notes that advances in technology, the decreasing cost of collecting data, the widespread growth in the acceptance of performance measurement, and an increased demand for reliable evidence have cumulatively created a demand for more performance information to make informed decisions.

Hatry’s goal in writing the guide is to offer “suggestions that do not require ongoing use of highly specialized personnel or are likely to require substantial added resources.” Some of his advice is centered on tools and techniques that he has pioneered or promoted over the years, including:

  • Use logic models, or “outcome sequence charts,” to diagram how various program activities interact and contribute to an outcome. Hatry says logic models are helpful in “highlighting the relative importance of the various ‘intermediate’ and ‘end’ outcomes” so managers will know where to place their attention and resources.
  • Use stakeholder and customer surveys to help ensure you are focusing on the right outcomes and understand customer satisfaction and client conditions.
  • Disaggregate performance data by key major customer characteristics, such as demographics, difficulty to serve and risk of failure. Overly aggregated data can hide what is really happening.
  • If using a PerformanceStat approach in headquarters, cascade its use to divisions and field levels as a strategic leadership strategy.
  • Provide transparency into performance information to front-line employees, so they can be empowered to identify and solve problems on their own.

Hatry’s guide is brief, readable and actionable—less than 90 pages. It was written from an unparalleled vantage point of years of practice. It’s worth the read, even if only to self-assess your existing performance measurement and management systems.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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