Monday, February 21st, 2011 - 10:37
One of the central elements in state, local and federal performance reports are targets. This seems perfectly sensible. Goals, by themselves, help governments see the directions they should be taking. But targets are a fundamental means for the entities to know whether they’ve been successful or not.
Of course, targets can be used as incentives or as punitive measures or both. David Mamet’s film, Glengarry Glen Ross, comes immediately to mind as an over-the-top example. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s the story of struggling real estate salesmen who are told that the individual who had the best numbers would win a car; number two would get a set of steak knives and the rest would be fired on the spot.
Consequences for Missed Targets. A somewhat more even-tempered approach than this has been taken with the passage of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 – an update to government performance and results legislation passed in 1993. Up until the passage of this law back in December, it was pretty clear that agencies could miss their targets with no consequences beyond a certain embarrassment factor. Now, the first time a federal agency misses its targets it must tell the Office of Management and Budget how it’s going to get up to standards in the next year. The second year an agency misses, it has to hand over a similar plan to both OMB and Congress. What if an agency falls short for a third year? Now it’s on the hot seat, and has just a couple of months to tell Congress precisely how it’s get on the straight and narrow through statutory and executive changes – including laying off personnel if that’s appropriate.
Assuming that this approach is considered successful in coming months and years, it could well serve as a model for other levels of government. But although the new GPRA may emerge as an important step forward, there are still a host of knotty issues regarding the actual target setting.
For example, over what time span should targets be set? We chatted about this with H. George Frederickson, the Edwin O. Stene distinguished professor of public administration at the University of Kansas. He was dubious about asking for demonstrable progress on goals at too frequent intervals. “How could you conceivably ask for progress on achieving goals at the department of commerce every quarter?” he asked rhetorically.
Somewhat more thorny is the question how an agency can actually set reasonable targets altogether. “There is always a tension between producing a target that is meaningful,” Bernice Steinhardt, director of strategic issues at the GAO told us, “and agencies holding back because they are accountable.” In fact, some observers are concerned that the graduated consequences spelled out in the new GPRA could conceivably encourage agencies to shoot at easier targets.
Sometimes political considerations push a federal agency, state or city to offer up a target that sounds just great when trumpeted from a podium, but is clearly unachievable. Consider California’s Assembly Bill 2556 which was passed, but ultimately vetoed, about five years back. The bill called for eliminating all poverty in 20 years. But does anyone in the world really think that’s achievable? Even the generally optimistic New Testament concedes that “there will be poor always.”
But if goals and targets aren’t realistic, will they actually drive governments forward in a useful way? “Performance goals don't mean anything if those who have to meet them don’t take them seriously,” David Osborne, senior partner at Public Strategies Group told us.
On the flip side of the coin, targets that don’t go far enough may not need to be taken seriously in the first place. Let’s say that we set a personal household goal for ourselves to make sure we exercise at least three hours a week. But, as it happens, that’s exactly what we’re doing now. So, what’s the point?
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers explains what’s happening here. “It’s a constant game between agencies and the budget office,” he says. “Agencies try to set a target they know they’ll make, and the budget department says, ‘come on,’” and asks them to push harder.
Avoiding Timid Targets. Making sure that targets aren’t too easily achieved, Pattison argues, requires that someone in power – whether in legislative or executive branches – asks the hard question: ‘Why is your target so easy to reach?’ Says Pattison, “Those questions need to be asked, and if they are asked, the agency will begin to ask them itself.”
Jeff Tryens, consultant at Measures Matter, and former executive director of the Oregon Progress Board shared a tidy little list of three ways to try to get to the most useful targets:
- Look at and understand where the entity is now. In that way the target won’t be perceived as just a data point at some point in the future, but a future point along an already established trend line.
- Solicit expert opinions, outside an agency, to help establish the targets. People who are enmeshed in the inner workings of an agency may not be able to easily balance ambitious targets with realistic ones.
- Consider a target as representation of something that stakeholders would care about. For example, a state might have a target that simply says, “Reach the national average because our state has historically run below the national average,” or a federal agency might have a target of “cutting the cost of procurements to point X, because that’s what the typical private sector firm can do.”
Benchmarking Helps. One straightforward way for government entities to establish achievable, useful targets is by looking at what other, similar entities have done. This is most easily accomplished for states and cities, where there are a large number of lookalikes on which to make comparisons. But it can also be effective at the federal level, by starting with the accomplishments of other agencies and then making modifications to suit an individual entity.
“Benchmark information is critical in educating the public and elected officials in terms of what is a right target and an acceptable target,” says Charles Curry a consultant with Weidner Group. “Elected officials and the public tend to think in those terms already. If you say the county or city is doing this or that, most people tend to ask ‘is that good?’ or ‘how does that compare?’”
One good example of the utility of benchmarking in this way is to look at results emanating from Emergency Medical Services across the country when dealing with cardiac arrest. The survival rates tend to be surprisingly low, even for the Services that are considered to be exemplar. They’re often below 25 percent, and sometimes even lower, depending on variations in the way survival rates are measured. “But,” says Curry, “most people don’t have a clue that it is so low.” As a result, a mayor would be loath to set a target that seems like aiming for failure. But, says Curry, “benchmark information provides a good understanding of what they are really able to produce.”