So What’s Success?
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.