Measuring Public Value

Studies from the private sector offer new ways to analyze government programs.

Americans love technology-the new thing-and so does their government. And government, of course, has been much more than a purchaser of private sector inventions; it has led the way in space, military, medical and communications technologies. The Internet, the Global Positioning System, a physics Nobel Prize and cancer breakthroughs are examples.

Nowadays, much attention focuses on sophisticated uses of information technology-designing systems that will extract usable intelligence from masses of data and also communicate results quickly to people in a position to act.

That's been a key goal of technology in the big health systems run by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. As David Perera reports in this issue, Defense is about to fully deploy its health IT system after an expensive, decade-long effort to get it done. Now the question is whether government will do more than exhort the private sector to adopt the standards and make the investments that would create a nationwide system of transferable electronic medical records. President Bush ordered the Health and Human Services Department to promote such a system two years ago, but experts say it's not clear that its standard-setting approach will work.

Some suggest government should subsidize adoption of medical records technologies. That raises issues about the value of such an investment and the measurements one might use to weigh costs against projected benefits.

These questions, which often arise with federal IT initiatives, are addressed by two new studies sponsored by respected players in the federal market. SAP, a leading provider of enterprise software in Newtown Square, Pa., underwrote one of the studies, a project by SUNY Albany's Center for Technology in Government to develop a "public value framework" for analysis of government's return on IT investment. Among interesting aspects is the study's reliance not only on quantifiable but on qualitative measures such as advances in social welfare and trust in government.

SAP Public Services President Rand Blazer says the qualitative measures should eventually be quantified, and indeed some companies are working to that end. An example is AutoGov Inc., an Austin, Texas, firm whose analytical programs can tease useful lessons out of floods of data in federal health and human services programs. Using the research and analytical capabilities of software from Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc., AutoGov can help ensure timely and accurate eligibility determinations-and optimal services-to clients.

The second study is described in Unlocking Public Value (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) by Martin Cole and Greg Parston of Accenture, the global management and technology consulting firm. By arraying benefits provided against costs incurred, Accenture's Public Service Value model allows managers to assess whether their programs are cost-effectively improving services from year to year. Benefits can be weighted against one another in the present and the longer term.

These useful ideas from the private sector take their cue from government leaders' insistence over the past 15 years that public programs prove their worth. We should root for their success, for they can only help in rebuilding people's confidence in the public sector.

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