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February 10, 2006

Measurement, Performance and Credibility

In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, the purposes and performance of organizations determine the fate of the planet. Organizations -- whether governmental, non-profit or for profit -- sit at the "mid-level" between massively large contexts such as markets and networks on one side and tiny contexts such as friends and families on the other. Organizations are the crucibles in which people -- in their roles as employees and volunteers -- shape and pursue shared purposes that simultaneously use amassed resources to contribute to the fate of the planet and determine much about the fates of those folks who are employees and volunteers in the organizations. Organizations are 'thick we's' who share fates with others beyond friends and family and whose shared purposes say much about how the common good of those employees contributes to the greater good of the planet.

For all of these reasons, the performance of organizations and how that performance is measured or evaluated is of paramount importance. For example, too many private sector companies evaluate performance strictly in terms of shareholder value -- a fundamentalist ideology every bit as dangerous to the planet as religious terrorism. Just as the best religious and spiritual values are tempered by humility, tolerance and concern for others, so the best financial and economic values are strengthened by equivalent concern for customers, employees, joint venture partners and -- as just stated -- by how the common good of a company contributes, sustainably, to the greater good of the planet.

How, then, is the performance of governmental organizations to be evaluated? Surely there should be some evaluation of the efficiency with which resources are deployed to produce results. In addition, there ought to be a narrative of results -- a narrative of effectiveness -- by which the resources provided by taxpayers and others are used to provide opportunities to the people who work in the government organization (and their joint venture or alliance partners) to provide critical governmental goods and services to folks who need them in ways that inspire confidence by taxpayers and others to continue to provide resources that support opportunities for employees... and on and on and on.

This is a reinforcing cycle of efficient and effective performance. It demands evaluation at each link of the cycle -- evaluation and measurement about the quality of opportuniites provided employees and strategic partners, the goods and services delivered, and the sense and belief by taxpayers and other resource providers that their support is making a difference.

Performance evaluation is hard work, particularly when the parameters are qualitative instead of quantitative. Still, there is a threshold of credibility for such efforts -- a lower limit of 'believability' above which difficult judgement calls must sit to be credible.

So, let's all applaud the possibilities for learning, improvement, transparency and effectiveness within a widespread effort called expectmore.gov to evaluate the performance of governmental organizations. In this effort, hundreds of governmental organizations ('programs') are evaluated through a series of questions provided to those who work in the organization as well as outsiders.

The standards used to translate qualitative questionnaires into a quantitative yardstick are interesting. The best score possible is 100; the worst 0. A governmental program is considered as 'performing' as long as the score is above 50, or "adequate'.

Put differently, the 'performing' vs. 'not performing' distinction rests literally with the 'glass half full', 'glass half empty' line of demarcation.

Okay. Let's accept this as an intelligent starting point to build a culture of accountability and performance in governmental organizations. And I mean that. Decades of experience managing difficult change suggest this is a smart way to start.

Having said that, the low threshold for 'adequate' performance puts a very high premium on credibility of assessment and evaluation. If low grades are 'good enough', then we need to be confident there is no 'grade inflation'.

With this in mind, let's look at what the evaluations tell us. According to the website, 72% of the federal programs are performing and 28% are not.

Among the 72% of programs performing is FEMA -- it received an adequate ('glass half full') rating. In the assessment, FEMA rated a 100% -- a perfect score -- for management. In the section about steps being taken to improve performance, we are told "Reassessing the program to determine strengths and weaknesses in its response to Hurrican Katrina."

It is painful to see this assessment. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families we -- and our children and their children -- depend on the performance of organizations to ensure that the future of the planet is safe, sane and sustainable. We must all applaud any credible effort to evaluate the performance of governmental organizations. It's a critical element to the movement begun with the book Reinventing Government.

But, such efforts must be credible. And that means the questionnaires used, the responses given and weighed, the oversight of governmental officials and other methods must pass some minimum smell test of credibility.

FEMA's performance -- in the wake of Katrina -- cannot possibly or credibly be evaluated as "adequate".

That expectmore.gov judges FEMA a performing program casts doubt on the entire edifice of their evaluation efforts.

Go ahead. Use this 'FEMA" standard for your personal and household decisions. I mean it. When you're figuring out what investments to make for your retirement, or how to help your kids choose a college, or what doctors to go to when you are sick -- go ahead, find an evaluation effort that judges the performance of the choices you have and rely on a service that gives 'performing' to an investment choice, a college choice or a medical choice with FEMA's actual track record.

Here's my prediction: You wouldn't do that. You wouldn't put your future in the hands of either an investment, college or doctor as demonstrably incompetent as FEMA -- and you wouldn't rely on any evaluation service that rated such incompetence as performing.

So, how do you regard the money, person power and other resources being put into expectmore.gov?

Does it make you 'expect more'?

Posted by Doug Smith on February 10, 2006 02:02 PM | Permalink

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Tracked on February 11, 2006 01:29 PM