How Do You Measure the Effectiveness of Government?

Understanding the citizen’s perspective can drive quality data and decisions.

With the 24-hour news cycle and at-your-fingers access to the latest stories, the American people have plenty of information constantly available to them. And whether they know it or not, they are using much of that information as a de facto source for evaluating the effectiveness of government.

Each of us serves as a self-contained big data processor, tagging data elements in our own minds and using the information later to formulate decisions such as preferred presidential candidates, favored legislative efforts, and opinions about policy nuances that we may not even understand to be nuanced or policy-related.

With this context in mind, I aim to bring some clarity and simplification to a question that has very complex and multidimensional answers: How do the American people measure the effectiveness of government? For this article, I will use the term “government” to refer collectively to federal, state and local entities.

The answer to this question is complex because the American people are a wildly diverse lot. Any schema that claims to capture the way “we” think must be broad and flexible enough to encompass the idiosyncratic ideas of many individuals. Therefore, I have devised five distinct characteristics (noted by the acronym STEPS) employed by individuals for evaluating the government, with the caveat that they must be clear but lack rigidity and allow for individualized definition.




Relative influence over other stakeholders in the world.


Degree of openness in government communication and data availability.


Soundness of financial footing. Judgment of whether the value delivered is worth the cost of delivering.

Public Goods

Products and services provided by the government to improve quality of life.

Social Goods

Products and services provided by the government to promote social, procedural, and economic justice.

I propose that each of these characteristics serves as a meta-tag that our collective minds use to sift through the variety of information about government that we confront. The measures for each of these characteristics are determined within each person’s mind, and each characteristic is weighted by the personal importance to the individual.

Measures of strength can include perceived military might, unemployment rates, technology base and reputation (or capacity?) for innovation, and global education rankings. An individual may prefer an open show of strength through the presence of bases and weapons systems in multiple countries and a reduction in unemployment. Alternatively, individuals may prefer indirect paths to strength, such as defense spending or spending per pupil in elementary and secondary education.

Regarding transparency, people often decry political gamesmanship and backroom deals as examples of transparency deficits. When government enacts legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, citizens are given the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of processes pertaining to open government. When this happens, individuals may judge that openness on such factors as the speed of information retrieval or the quality of data available on USASpending.gov.

Measurement pertaining to the economics of government is often perceived as one of the biggest political footballs. Economics can cover such areas as gross domestic product, government debt and deficits, reports of government waste, and the projected financial stability of programs like Social Security. Depending on one’s politics, a measure like the amount of deficit a government runs may be perceived as a net positive or a net negative, but either way, it is certainly a lens through which citizens evaluate government effectiveness.

In measuring effectiveness of public goods, people consider a variety of categories, from transportation to environmental initiatives to insurance policies available through the Affordable Care Act. The importance of these goods to any individual may fluctuate on a yearly or even a daily basis. For example, transportation infrastructure woes may be bemoaned every morning during rush hour, whereas health insurance accessibility may only be important during a year when one loses one’s job.

In contrast, the importance of social goods is based on a persistent sense of morality. Accordingly, individual measures of the effectiveness of these goods may be more long term than individual measures of public goods. For example, the fairness of the criminal justice system, the importance of social security, and attitudes toward government involvement in abortion are less likely to change based on the length of one’s commute this morning or the recentness of one’s visit to a public park. Sometimes, social goods are intertwined with public goods such as when subsidies are provided for health insurance on state exchanges. In this instance, the exchange itself is a public good but subsidies based on the principle of supporting lower income people are a social good, and a citizen may develop different measures of effectiveness on these disparate attributes of the program.

While certainly open to interpretation, these STEPS together provide a high level framework for determining how individual citizens evaluate government effectiveness. It is probably not comforting to those executing the business of government that the actual measures of success will vary from person to person. Nonetheless, politically, it helps to have such a framework so that government leaders can recognize how they are being evaluated, if not what the actual measures are. This awareness is one more driver for agencies to make sure high-quality data is available to inform the judgments that people will inevitably make. 

Paul Eder, Ph.D., is a lead consultant with The Center for Organizational Excellence Inc.

(Image via MJTH/Shutterstock.com)