Last year, my fellow editors and I met with scores of state and local government officials through a series of Government Technology Editorial Roundtables -- informal events across the country attended by IT professionals from state and local governments, education and other public-sector organizations.
The idea was simple: We wanted to hear firsthand about issues facing our readers.
After personally attending roundtables in dozens of cities, I left impressed with the amount of innovative work occurring and the dedication of the people doing it. I also heard some recurring themes, one of which was growing interest in performance measurement.
A considerable amount of our roundtable participants wanted to know how their operations compared with those of their peers in other regions. Several asked me if Government Technology knew of sources for appropriate benchmarking data. I didn't have a good answer then, but the options may be improving.
The National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers (NASACT) announced in August 2005 a contract with several consulting firms to provide statewide benchmarking services, which NASACT calls an initial step in building a comprehensive database of standard performance metrics for state governments.
Benchmarking has been around in the corporate world for quite some time, and at least a few local government initiatives have been launched to share performance measurement data. Until now, however, it's been hard for state agencies to find metrics that let them make apples-to-apples comparisons with similar organizations.
Just comparing costs with private industry can be too simplistic because the approach ignores that government delivers some services that are too difficult or too costly for the private sector to provide.
The new benchmarks promise tools that allow governments to measure themselves against other government organizations -- or at least against private entities of comparable complexity.
It's too early to tell how effective the NASACT initiative will be. The services aren't free, but this may be insight well worth paying for. Let's also hope that statistics and abstracts of these findings become widely and freely distributed -- allowing all governments to benefit from them.
Who knows, perhaps next time someone asks me where to find valid benchmarking data for government agencies, I'll have a better answer.