May 30, 2017 – Autumn Carter
We’re back after a whirlwind several days in Denver for the GFOA 2017 conference. More than 4,500 people walked the exhibit hall, asked questions, swapped stories, and packed tightly into more than 80 sessions. We even had an excellent, lively cocktail reception in our booth on Monday evening.
In short, we were busy.
So much happening at once can leave ideas bouncing around our heads. That is certainly true for me as I write this. But rather than clash, those bouncing ideas are coalescing around one critical challenge central to the public sector: government performance management.
Effective Government Performance Management is Essential
Attendees and speakers at this year’s conference repeatedly emphasized the importance of effective performance management. Approaches to performance management are evolving alongside public sector organizations and the technology they use.
The theme was clear: more than ever, public sector organizations are looking to budget better amid uncertainty, make more informed decisions, and align their key performance indicators with long-term goals.
This is true of public sector entities regardless of agency type, size, function, budget, or location. In practice, the complexity of individual performance management programs undoubtedly varies, but they help organizations strategically address increasingly complex challenges unique to the public sector.
Missing the Mark
As I listened in sessions and spoke with attendees afterward, common refrains emerged. Some presented approaches to technology-enabled performance management aimed to address key challenges but sometimes missed the mark. Here’s why:
- Models are not everything. Performance management should be data-driven, but there is more beyond the data.
- Organizational resources vary. Many of the custom, showcase examples were well out of reach for many small and mid-size governments.
- There is power in simplicity. Sometimes, the urge to collect everything means we ultimately learn nothing.
Models are not Everything
I walked into the Financial Planning in Uncertain Times session, and it was packed with at least 500 attendees, including a number standing along the side and back walls.
A decade after the last recession, many public sector agencies are still doing more with less, despite continued economic growth. As costs continue to rise, most are exploring their options for how to respond in the face of another downturn.
The interest was high. So was the sense of urgency among attendees.
That is why it was disappointing to realize the session was going to focus so heavily on building probability models in spreadsheets. The presenters rightly noted that uncertainty is a manageable reality and that public entities must be prepared. However, the session placed far too much emphasis on robust modeling and not enough on the principles around strategic planning in the face of uncertainty.
And to top it off, when Excel crashed in the middle of the presentation and a third of the room exited, it seemed like an unfortunately timed metaphor for failing to manage uncertainty.
Afterward, an attendee I spoke with on the exhibit floor said, “The models are never completely accurate. I wanted to hear more about what we should be thinking about when planning and what we do after running our models.”
Organizational Resources Vary
Traditionally, both robust modeling and open data can present barriers to entry for entities with fewer technology and staff resources. I thought this technology gap was starkly evident in the session, Transparency: What to Share and How to Share It.
When it comes to budgeting and operational management, there are key best practices around internal and external communications. Externally, key stakeholders not only need to understand how their local governments operate, but they also hold valuable insights about how programs actually impact conditions on the ground. When public sector agencies establish open data initiatives, they also open opportunities to engage their communities.
The session’s speakers touched on these points. However, for the most part, they were not representative of the room. For instance, an audible murmur broke out when Los Angeles’s Controller mentioned some of the City’s budget figures. LA’s transportation budget alone exceeds many of the audience members’ entire budgets. The Controller noted the City was able to hire additional headcount just to manage its open data initiative. It was obvious LA’s approach to open data was unfeasible for many in the room.
Although the session featured each a small, medium, and large government, each speaker suggested or explicitly said maintenance costs (e.g. software expenses, time, personnel hours) were high for their open data initiatives. That does not have to be the case, and the session would have benefitted from lighter-weight examples of open data initiatives that public entities of all sizes have adopted.
There is Power in Simplicity
A simpler approach is often a better approach. Simplicity can declutter our perspectives, ground our conversations, and help us focus. It helps us get to the heart of our challenges.
At the same time, there is pressure to demonstrate that we have attempted to measure everything and exhaust every analysis. Whether it is our models, our dashboards, or our key performance indicators (KPIs), it can be all too easy to get lost in the data.
In principle, the session Sounds Great - But Does it Work? Practical Application of Return on Investment (ROI) Analysis did a decent job engaging with the common challenge governments face when determining what to measure to assess impact. Without a doubt, that is often difficult. In a rush to measure outcomes, it is easy to misalign indicators with long-term desired outcomes. It is easy to measure what you can rather than what you should.
There is a difference between performance measurement and performance management. Measuring performance quantifies an organization's progress towards goals. Managing performance helps organizations achieve those goals strategically and with purpose.
I suspect reducing some of the pressure around perfecting numerous KPIs and shifting the focus to identifying a few meaningful ones would be immensely beneficial for those organizations looking to be more operationally efficient. It is easier (and more cost- effective) to focus on collecting the data necessary for a few KPIs, set up data structures necessary to analyze them, and focus on how to best communicate them to stakeholders.
Simplicity is especially important as we consider how technology can facilitate effective performance management for public sector entities of all sizes that face a variety of circumstances. While the right technology solution can make managing performance easier, it is clear that those using technology have a role to play in striving for that ease too.
When resources are abundant, it is easier to try to do everything. But most governments' coffers are not overflowing, as we saw throughout GFOA 2017. Rather, in an era when governments of all sizes must do more with less, successfully managing organizational performance is the key to achieving more sustainable systems and efficient resource allocation. To that end, here is what we took away from GFOA:
- Models inform decisions, but don't make them. Risk modeling can be useful, but establishing realistic contingency plans is essential.
- Open data solutions do not have to drain organizational resources. Thanks to the cloud, today there are open data options for governments of all sizes.
- Technology facilitates more strategic planning and decision-making. Technology solutions should make information easy to access, understand, and communicate.
- Keep it simple. Collecting, measuring, and analyzing the right data is more important than collecting, measuring, and analyzing all the data.
Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.