July | August 2017


The Performance Push

by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene
When we’ve set out in search of sectors of state government that tend to have the most robust set of performance measures, we often run across transportation as a good example. The reason is a simple one. Even if a state wanted to save money by forgoing evaluation of its roads and bridges, it is required to do this kind of work by regulations set forth by the Federal Highway Administration.
As far as we can see, the states have been better off as a result. For example, the federal government has been able to help states utilize carefully constructed cross-state fatality data to identify road-safety programs that work—such as seat-belt laws—and look at reasons behind greater numbers of fatalities in one state compared to others.
Federal and state governments often share the same directional goals—reduce poverty, increase jobs, decrease unemployment, decrease the number of high school dropouts, reduce teenage pregnancy and so on. Federally initiated efforts at goal setting, the development of data and the measurement of performance have been intended to improve outcomes in these and other initiatives.
Over the last couple of years, the federal government has awarded nearly $1 billion in state grants to create innovative health care efforts, including new approaches to payments and service delivery. Some years ago, it may have rolled out this kind of grant money with little consideration to how well the programs have performed after they’ve begun. But now, according to individual state reports put together by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “continued funding will be subject to state performance, compliance with the terms and conditions of award, and demonstrated progress towards the goals and objectives of the State Innovation Models.”
Shelley Metzenbaum, a well-known expert in performance measurement who served as associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget between 2009 and 2013, says the federal government has been influential over the years in building state capacity to collect and analyze data.
“It (the federal government) strongly influences what gets measured, how it gets measured and how it gets used,” said Metzenbaum.

A Complex Process

But before we give the federal government a gold medal for promulgating performance measurements in the states, we feel obliged to point out that this process is often complex and difficult for states—even when it comes to some issues that would appear to be very simple. With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government faced multiple issues with standardizing the performance reporting that was required as a part of the program, which provided funding to states and local governments to save and create jobs during the Great Recession. It was difficult for the states and localities to even come up with a standardized definition of what qualified as a job for performance measurement and reporting purposes.
More recently, when the U.S. Veterans Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set out to reduce veterans’ homelessness, they had the challenge of figuring out how to define what “homelessness” meant.
What’s more, the states aren’t always thrilled to see the federal government step into their backyards with prescriptions for measurement. Historically, efforts by the federal government to require specific data or performance measures have often sparked opposition, particularly when performance measurement requirements are mostly related to compliance and do not appear to contribute to a joint federal-state effort to improve programs. As Metzenbaum said, “states can see performance measurement requirements in grants as a drain on the resources that would contribute to getting the job done.”
Partially as a result, while there has been steady pressure from the federal government to show the impact of funding, there’s also a recognition that states need to have some discretion in what and how they measure.
“Most agency leaders would like to see guidance within reasonable parameters of flexibility,” said Tracy Wareing, executive director of the American Public Human Services Association. According to Wareing, the state agency commissioners with whom she talks look for clear and simple instructions, but want to be given flexibility to target the particular needs they have.
There’s a kind of Catch-22 situation here. On the one hand, there’s general agreement that one of the benefits of federal intervention in state performance measurement is standardization of approach and terms, which allows the capacity for states to benchmark upon one another. Still, while standardization is an estimable goal, Jonathan Breul, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a high-level management official at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s and early 2000s, points out that it’s not more common, largely because of state push-back. “You can just push so far,” he said, “and then it’s no longer productive.”

Collaboration is Key

As a result, many of the successful federal measurement efforts have recognized the need for strong state and local buy-in and involvement. For example, a case study about child support enforcement from the IBM Center for the Business of Government looked at the development of data and measurement information for the states’ child support systems, which were targeted for pilots in the Government Performance and Results Act of 1994.
The focus in creating the measurement system was on collaboration and consensus, with state child support enforcement directors actively engaged in the development of the system and in the incentive funding attached to it. The five key measures that were chosen for the program led to a management focus that dramatically improved the identification of paternity and the collection of child support over time. For example, California improved the percentage of money it collected for families receiving benefits from 42 percent of the total owed in 2002 to 65 percent in 2014.
Assuming that this kind of collaboration can be achieved, there’s another significant reason why state and local governments are now appearing to be less resistant to federal requirements and requests for performance information than in the past, according to John Kamensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He said this may be because newer technology—and the states own recognition of the need to develop useful data—has made the reporting seem less burdensome. Collecting data is much easier now and there is less manual input. “This is a different world than 20 years ago in terms of the availability of data,” he said.
In fact, more data/performance collection requirements are attached to projects for which the purpose of the data is clearer. “There’s an acceptance of collecting performance-related information, but at the customized level,” said Kamensky. It’s not being collected “just for the sake of collection. It’s being collected to use.”

Effective Performance Measures

According to experts in the field, successful federal input into the performance measurement process achieves the following:
Successful federal involvement in performance measurement evolves over time. Wareing cited the child safety review process in which the federal government steps in to examine child safety data and performance at the state level. It is currently in its third iteration. A popular objective when the program started was to reach better outcomes on child safety—a goal that states supported. But the high performance standards that were set were hard for states to achieve. “And states were failing left and right,” said Wareing.
With state input, the standards were refined and the process shifted from a more punitive approach to one where there was a greater emphasis on what was being learned. “We’re in a third iteration in its early stages,” said Wareing, “and the states are pretty happy that the feds have given them a good sense of where they should be investing resources, time and energy, and what’s being accomplished.”

About Barrett and Greene

CSG Senior Fellows Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene are experts on state government who work with Governing magazine, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Volcker Alliance, the National Academy of Public Administration and others. As CSG senior fellows, Barrett and Greene serve as advisers on state government policy and programming and assist in identifying emerging trends affecting states.