Agencies offered tips on solving the performance puzzle

Strip away the benchmarks and indices, and the public has one fundamental question to pose to its government: "How much value is my tax dollar buying?"

According to Donald F. Kettl of the University of Wisconsin's LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs, answering this question is essential to the success of those managers who attempt to solve the "performance puzzle." Kettl addressed the topic in a speech before the Council for Excellence in Government last week.

"Performance measures allow an agency to say, 'This is what we think we should be doing, and this is how well we're doing it,'" said Kettl. Well-defined measures focus debates, allow agencies to defend their work and help communicate goals to employees, he said.

Kettl singled out the Internal Revenue Service's response to 1997's scathing congressional hearings on tax collection practices as an example of how the absence of adequate measures can leave an agency defenseless to criticism. Days of heated testimony featured everything from anonymous witnesses behind screens to the tale of an IRS raid on a teenage slumber party.

Lost in the ensuing scramble to address its shortcomings was the question of whether such criticism was justified by the IRS's actual performance, particularly since the agency had initiated some of its most controversial practices in response to a congressional mandate for higher collection rates. Kettl asserted that taxpayers were shortchanged by the IRS's frequent changes of course and assigned the brunt of the blame to the agency's inability to document its success or failure in meeting policy goals.

Poorly defined lines of responsibility pose another challenge for performance-focused executives. While many programs have multiple levels of government jurisdiction, few involve a central manager. The growth of public-private partnerships has further muddled accountability. "Responsibility for everything that matters is shared," said Kettl.

Amidst these mismatched pieces of the performance puzzle, Kettl sees an opportunity to use the measurement process to restore faith in government. At a time when both major political parties have adopted smaller, more efficient government as a mantra, performance measurement can serve as an effective tool for trumpeting the many programs that meet this ideal. And by including citizens in the setting of performance goals, agencies can begin to bridge the gap between a cynical public and those on the frontline of government service, he said.

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