County Program Management Provides "Actionable Data"

"It's not just looking back and reporting, it's about looking forward and projecting, seeing how you are doing and making adjustments."

by / May 20, 2009

President Obama in February outlined some fundamental principles for the disbursement of stimulus funds. "We are asking the American people to trust their government with an unprecedented level of funding to address the economic emergency," he said. " In return, we must prove to them that their dollars are being invested in initiatives and strategies that make a difference in their communities," and called for accountability and transparency in the management of stimulus funds.

Most jurisdictions across the country are accustomed to reporting to state and federal entities, and many have instituted unprecedented levels of financial transparency. Performance management tools can help fulfill the reporting requirements, improve transparency and help to refine and improve the processes of government to better achieve "making a difference." Lane County, Oregon, is serious about taking on those challenges.

Lane County

In the fall of 2005 Lane County, Ore., began a pilot implementation of performance management software in the Health and Human Services Department. "We refined all the metrics being used in the department," said Lane County Senior Management Analyst Jennifer Inman "Unlike other organizations, we didn't develop a balance score card or a set of key indicators that we measured from the top down. We developed program-level manager-level metrics to use for data-driven decision-making on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis."

The county has since expanded the performance management program to 14 departments -- using Actuate software -- covering services from road maintenance to immunizations, building permits, deeds and records. "We have so many different kinds of work in our organization," said Inman, "that each area develops their own sets of metrics to report. Some of those areas have very detailed program-level measures -- efficiency and service quality, customer satisfaction -- and others have high-level measures that are reported at the department level. Some departments use the software and do performance management in quite detailed ways, and other departments do performance measure to report out annually or biannually to the county and other funders -- and then through our budget process to the public."

With stimulus funding transparency and accountability a high-profile issue, metrics could be key. Inman said that the county is expecting stimulus funding for public works and health and has grant documents for its federally qualified health center. But as yet there are no specifics on the kinds of outcome data that might be required. She said most likely it would be focused on the quantity of services provided under a specific level of funding. "Customer service and its impact, number of immunizations, first-birth families that we are able to screen into our healthy start program, numbers about outcomes for infant mortality -- we have different touchpoints to look at.

"The federal and state governments have been expectant of data in the past," said Inman, "so transparency and accountability is not such a new thing. I'm glad that we are able to take advantage of this opportunity, and we already have an infrastructure of measuring performance established in our organization. I'm pretty confident that whatever is going to be requested, we'll be able to use that system to manage and report back."

Management, Not Just Reporting

"The beauty of performance management," said Inman, "is that you can track how things are going before you have to report, so you can make adjustments. It's not just looking back and reporting, it's about looking forward and projecting, seeing how you are doing and making adjustments. That's been very important for us this year, with the economy tanking, to watch deeds and records, and our building permitting and watch the dominos across the organization fall as building slacked off, and the housing market dropped -- to see what was going

to happen there and the layoffs due to the decline in building, and construction of new housing. We were watching and knowing they were coming, and it's given us an opportunity to plan better.

"Data doesn't change the facts of the matter," she continued, "but you can anticipate what will happen. In performance management you are looking at real-time data now to see what it says about what you need to do tomorrow. Reporting and transparency is about: did you apply the dollars the way you intended and did you get the results you thought you would? So our tool allows us to do both: report what has happened and what we were able to achieve with the dollars as we applied them, and look at how things are going now while we are trying to predict and anticipate what might happen in order to make course adjustments."

For example, the county's Justice Court collections dropped off, and staff were able to see that and create a program that got collections back on track. In another situation, the county was forced to lay staff off when building starts dropped and recording revenues followed suit.

"I'm a believer on using data to make decisions. I have seen lots and lots of data collected for no purpose whatsoever, the results are confusing or they are not used in a way that's helpful. So my mantra is: 'Is the data actionable?' What decision is it going to get me, based on these result? And who is going to be making that decision? And if we can't answer those questions, then why are we measuring it? In some cases we are measuring it, because a funding source told us that they must have that data. So we do collect that data. So we look for, where did we see something going up or down that we made a change -- a program management type of change -- using these metrics and the analysis of the data in a way that's understandable to most people to explain how their tax dollars have an impact on the community. That to me is the most important thing at a countywide level that we are doing with our performance measures. Program level people are using it to do program decisions in useful ways so that we are applying those dollars in ways that create results for them and their neighbors."

Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government