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​Without Users, Performance Measurement Is Useless

Getting meaningful metrics to the right people drives improvements.

Let’s be honest.  A whole lot of people in and around government think performance measurement is an annoyance that needs to get done because it is legally required. Consequently, they measure as minimally as possible to comply.

Others think of measurement as a means to motivate by promising reward or threatening punishment for meeting or missing targets. As we recently saw with the Veterans Health Administration’s medical appointment wait-time targets, ill-structured incentives unfortunately tend to encourage measurement manipulation, not performance improvement. 

Happily, these erroneous attitudes are beginning to change. Governments, their suppliers, and their delivery partners are beginning to understand the enormous value of using performance data to find ways to improve, inform priorities, and enlist expertise and assistance. Asking and answering a few key questions is crucial to realizing the full value of performance measurement. Who needs performance information to make better decisions? When and where do they need the information? Is the information getting to target users in a way they understand and when they need it? 

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Steven Kelman (full disclosure, my husband) recently described promising developments in Massachusetts’ delivery of data to schools and teachers to help them support student learning. The system, called Edwin, helps Massachusetts schools better utilize standardized test scores to improve. Kelman noted it offers a wealth of useful information for a variety of users:

"The version available to schools divides up information about performance on different parts of the various standardized test by school (compared with other schools in general, or demographically comparable schools in particular), by classroom and even by individual student.

"The latest version also ties in public school data with national university databases so a school can learn what percentage of their graduates who go to college end up graduating. The system is now working on linking school data with data from preschool programs so schools can know what kinds of preschool programs the students have had (this is designed to help schools tailor instruction to new pupils, but could eventually be used to link preschool programs with elementary school performance)." 

Massachusetts also gives parents the school-level data (presumably to protect against unfair assessments of individual teachers by sharing individual classroom-level data), and benchmarks each school with its demographic peers. With more areas of educational gain than decline, the payoff looks promising.

So what are the lessons learned? Performance measurement is useless unless it is used to find ways to improve. It is imperative to identify who needs performance information (i.e., data, analysis, evaluations) to make better decisions and take smarter actions.  Another critical step is making sure key users get the performance information they need in a format that they can use. If that is not happening in your organization, it is time to start working on it. 

Useful, useful, useful. Keep that foremost in your mind when managing the production, analysis and distribution of performance data. 

Shelley H. Metzenbaum (@SMetzenbaum) is president of The Volcker Alliance, a nonpartisan organization launched in 2013 to address the challenge of effective execution of public policies and to rebuild public trust in government. Between 2009 and 2013, Shelley served as associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Correction: The original version of this column referred to assessments by teachers, not assessments of teachers.The column has been updated to correct the error.

(Image via eurobanks/Shutterstock.com)

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