Improving Government the 'Moneyball' Way

Last week the movie version of the Michael Lewis book Moneyball opened, starring Brad Pitt in the role of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane.

Beane is portrayed in the book and the film as a heroic challenger to baseball's conventional wisdom who developed a new method of evaluating players and assessing overall team strengths that enabled his small-market club to compete against much better capitalized behemoths like the New York Yankees. So it's not surprising that the Office of Management and Budget now wants federal agencies to follow the Billy Beane model.


Today on OMB's blog, Shelley Metzenbaum, the agency's associate director of performance and personnel management, writes that the Obama administration "has been taking its own Moneyball approach to management, driving performance and, ultimately, saving money":

Like Beane, who understood that his goal was to win games - not hit the most home runs, government agencies must learn to be clear about what they want to accomplish and not get stuck in the rut of doing what they have always done. That means setting real, achievable goals that align with agency mission, and sticking to them. For some agencies or programs, that means staying focused on preventing bad things, like accidents and pollution, from happening and reducing their costs when they do - rather than focusing on process goals like completing plan reviews. Processes can be important in achieving the goal, but we should never confuse them with the ultimate goal. To achieve more, government agencies need a clear understanding of the goals each wants to accomplish, focusing on the ultimate goals rather than intermediate process steps.

That seems like pretty good advice. But the folks at OMB might want to be a little careful about how far they take the Moneyball analogy. In the years between the publication of the book in 2003 and the debut of the movie, it's become clear that the Billy Beane story is a little complicated. For example, there's the inconvenient fact that the A's haven't won the World Series in the Beane years, while other small-market teams less single-mindedly focused on analytics have. (And the A's haven't even made the playoffs lately). Meanwhile, the free-spending teams like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox have married a more data-driven approach with massive spending on key free agent players to great success.

That could lead one to conclude that the appropriate use of analytics, when combined with big increases in budgets, is the real path to performance improvement. But it's doubtful that's an approach OMB wants to endorse.