This was originally posted as an exclusive commentary for The Washington Post.
President-elect Barack Obama's choice today of Nancy Killefer as our government's first chief performance officer (CPO) raises one obvious question: "What will a federal CPO do?" The details of Killefer's role and responsibilities remain fuzzy, but one key to her success is clear.
When it comes to government performance, one of the best ways to improve it will be to improve the way we measure it.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that Killefer sits on my organization's board of directors.)
Right now, our federal government relies on lagging indicators to let us know how our government is doing. When Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme hits the news, we realize the Securities and Exchange Commisssion needs to step up its enforcement. When toxic toys keep getting recalled, we know that the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs an overhaul. And when thousands of people are stranded at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, we know that FEMA is broken.
This pattern of discovering a federal agency isn't doing its job because something went terribly wrong needs to be reversed. The best way to do so is creating a system of effective, operational indicators to identify what parts of government are working in real time, and what needs to be fixed. In other words, we need leading indicators, not lagging ones.
Measuring performance isn't new to the federal government. Starting with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) in 1993 through the Bush administration's Performance Assessment Rating Tool (PART), there has been a concerted push to improve measurement in government. While each of these initiatives had particular strengths, problems with design and implementation have limited their impact.
There are two fundamental problems with how our government currently approaches measurement.
First, the measures are not operationally useful. Most federal managers view our government's performance measures as a paperwork exercise to keep them from getting into trouble with the Office of Management and Budget. Even though PART is our government's primary performance management tool, only 23 percent of federal managers report having knowledge of its details, and just one in four members of this small subset say they use PART data when making decisions.
They don't use it, because they often aren't measuring the right things. In this regard, our federal government is very much like major league baseball in the pre-Bill James era. James was a numbers geek who proved that many of the most popular statistics used to measure a player's worth, such as wins for pitchers and runs batted in for hitters, are in fact poor indicators of his true value. Instead, teams should pay attention to statistics like a batter's on-base percentage and a hurler's strikeout-to-walk ratio. For the most part, our federal government is still looking at wins and RBIs.
The second big problem with the measurements we currently use is that they are not meaningful to the public and external constituencies. Currently, our government focuses on reporting the activities of particular agencies, such as how many inspections of slaughterhouses were conducted by the Agriculture Department last year or how many food companies were inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. It should instead emphasize public outcomes and results -- whether there were spikes in food-borne illness -- rather than programmatic activities.
There is little doubt that developing real performance measures for our federal government that are both outcome-oriented and in line with public expectations will be a major challenge. Creating performance measurement tools is much harder in the public sector than private business where one cannot simply look at profits as a yardstick of success. But it can and must be done.
There are some rules of the road the Obama administration and its chief performance officer could follow to enhance the chances of success.
-Define your goals up front. The indispensible first step to creating useful measurements is identifying what it is you seek to accomplish. Once you have a clear objective or standard of performance, you can work backwards to create effective measures to judge performance.
-Keep it simple. The key to effective oversight is looking at the right measures, not the most measures. Focusing on a limited number of items, which are directly linked to your goals, will also make measurements more useful for managers and ensure they do not place an undue collection and analysis burden on an organization.
-Make data transparent and accessible. Releasing information publicly will help engage the general public in the work of government, as well as allowing measurement experts in academia and business to parse data and offer ideas to improve federal management. Transparency also creates an incentive for agencies to do a better job of collecting and using data.
-Release data in real time. Old information reveals how well an agency did. Managers need up-to-the-minute data to help improve how they are going to do.
-Listen to the people who know best. There is no better source of information on the health of federal organizations than the people who work in them. Case in point, a look at the 2003 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government (bestplacestowork.org) rankings, which measures employee engagement at federal agencies, would have told you that FEMA had the most disaffected workplace in the federal government.
-Build on what we already have. Our government is awash in data. The incoming administration should examine PART and GPRA and highlight the information that is relevant to managers and salient to the public.
-Make this a presidential priority. On this count, establishing a chief performance officer is a step in the right direction and an encouraging sign. Moving forward, the question is whether or not the president's whole leadership team, including Cabinet secretaries, will prioritize this issue and hold managers accountable for measuring performance.
Some people will surely argue that creating a modernized system of performance measurement in government would do nothing to reduce the number of federal failures. No matter what you do, government will always mess things up. Of course, people also said the Boston Red Sox would never win a World Series. Then they hired Bill James and won two championships in four years. The lesson: once you've clearly established your goals, don't underestimate the power of measurement to achieve them.