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So What’s Success?

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By manalk, on July 13, 2011

One of the projects I have been working on this summer is identifying potential performance/success indicators for Wake County’s Planning division. Administrators are interested in learning about the ways in which other planning departments define success, and what performance indicators they use to measure their definition of a successful planning function within local government.

I have also been researching performance indicators used by public library systems around the world, and thinking about measures of success that can be used by Wake County’s libraries given its demographic and institutional context.

As a result of these projects, as well as an exposure to a variety of other county government functions, I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the concept of successful government in general. I have come to appreciate how difficult and/or counterproductive it is to try to define and quantitatively measure what constitutes success for all functions of any type of government. This is an instructive insight because a combination of my undergraduate public policy analysis training and MPA program discussions about performance measurement/benchmarking had previously made me strongly believe in the necessity of analytically creating and tracking as many success indicators as possible.

For example, at the beginning of summer my inclination would have been to look at everything the libraries are doing and say why? What are the goals and objectives of the library system and how does each library activity/service connect to them? How are you measuring your stated goal of ‘promoting literacy’? Do you have proof that preschool reading time is truly promoting literacy? Just because kids are checking out 10 books per week doesn’t mean they are finishing and, more importantly, comprehending them.

Now that I have spent some time on the other side of local government, I feel that effective administrators need to recognize what can and should be measured/benchmarked, and what is ultimately not worth the effort. In the case of libraries, we can theoretically create some sort of controlled experiment that compares the reading comprehension levels of kids regularly attending library programs with ones that never do. However, the public resources required for this would be significant, and these finite resources can arguably be used for more important services. Also, external signals such as annual patron satisfaction surveys and library bond approval numbers may help reflect the effectiveness of libraries.

In conclusion, while it’s certainly true that many more government functions/programs can and should be evaluated for effectiveness and efficiency, there are others that don’t easily lend themselves to such rigorous analysis. To take another public sector function that is constantly urged to develop better performance indicators, educators are always being told to implement and evaluate some educational theory or another. However, sometimes the most experienced and trained teacher does not seem to be improving student scores because of circumstances that you have to be in a classroom to understand.

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3 Responses to “So What’s Success?”

  1. Phillip

    Interesting question. As both a current MPA student (another school!) and a former local elected official, I can see many approaches to this question.

    All my public admin theory experience tells me that performance measurement (PM) is one of the most important (and most ignored) aspects of government. When I combine that with practice, I think success begins when administrators begin asking PM questions; this is one of those ‘the journey, not necessarily the destination’ types of things. As you allude to, PM, when done right, can be costly, and from a theory perspective, it should part of the (literal and figurative) cost of any program.

    From the elected official perspective (I was a county commissioner), I have a more (small r) republican view of government success, i.e. do they people of the community feel like they are being served? While there is internal PM, i.e. how can an administrator run their department/program better, I look to how the elected officials view the program, its effect on the community, and the cost/benefits involved (and, of course, those costs/benefits have to more broadly defined than $ in & $ out).

    I was lucky to have a county manager and finance officer who, while they may not be fully modern PM converts, would, at least, think about those questions. If I was there longer, maybe I could have converted them more!

    In the library example, I would look to citizen (customer) surveys, the amount of people using the library (traffic), and look at other library systems in other counties (I’m all about stealing ideas). While literacy rates and the other things you mentioned are certainly things to look at, I almost feel like that is level 10 v. level 1 of government success. If we are serving the need (which, sometimes, we don’t know what the needs are), then that’s success.

  2. Raleigh Jobs

    Loved the image. I completely agree with your last paragraph. As an educator for more than 10 years, you certainly must be in the classroom to know what can be tested and what can not.

  3. Danny Sheilds

    Hey, Thanks for the great images on this webpage. I understand that as I am in a classroom all the time. The supervisers must be present and almost take part in the teaching for anything to seriously happen.

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