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What is Performance?

By Jody Harris

"Accountability is making sure that governments do what they are supposed to and achieve results that will improve people’s lives."   –Governmental Accounting Standards Board

In January 2001, Governor King submitted his budget to the Legislature. For the first time that budget is performance-based. As we get a look at the State’s inaugural performance budget, it is important to understand what performance is.

The performance in Maine’s performance budget is reflected in the quantifiable measures for each legislatively-funded program. These measures are important additions to the budget that allow decision-makers to evaluate program accomplishments and help citizens judge the use of their tax dollars.

But what do performance measures tell us? Fundamentally, performance measures should inform government decision-makers about whether we are achieving our public policy goals. This leads to an important distinction:

Performance measures do not tell us what policy should be. Performance measures tell us whether we are achieving the policy outcomes we set out to achieve.

To understand our policy outcomes, it is important to examine our enabling statutes and other program legislation where the Legislature makes its intent known. From there we develop a strategic plan that outlines, in clear goals and measurable objectives, what we’re supposed to achieve by the way of results. In this way, a strategic plan provides the policy context that gives meaning to an agency’s performance measures.

Without an understanding of the desired outcomes as framed by an agency’s goals and objectives, performance measures will be simply an assessment of what goods and services are being provided. Yet it is very possible to have high quality services that are efficient and meet the needs of the customer without achieving the desired results. For example, an agency whose goal is to help young people thrive and resist dangerous activities may provide youth recreation services in its community. Consider that there may be over 50 programs offered by the community to appeal to a wide range of interests. Over 60% of school-aged youth may participate in one or more programs. Its young users and their parents could consistently rate the services high. The programs may be delivered in a cost efficient manner through fees and corporate donations. Yet what if there is no systematic assessment of whether juvenile crime is declining in the community or other desired outcomes of providing youth recreation programs? The agency may know that it is doing well on a day-to-day operational level, but no one knows if it is meeting its goal of helping young people thrive.

Without the clear policy foundation that is provided by a strategic plan, the organization runs the risk that performance measures become the ends in themselves. For example, for a program that builds shelters for homeless people, one might measure the number of beds, the number of beds filled each night, perhaps even the recidivism rate. All good measures. But by focusing on the number of beds, there is a temptation simply to increase beds to meet the need of the homeless population, rather than a more desirable goal of reducing homelessness.

What performance measures do not tell us:

  1. What should public policy be?
  2. Why is performance at the level it is?
  3. What is an acceptable level of performance?
  4. What factors impact performance?
  5. How can performance be improved?
  6. What level of performance can we afford?

Performance data give us information about how well we are doing at any given point in time. They can neither predict nor explain performance. What’s more, what is good performance and how much improvement we need to make is a matter of opinion –it is defined in the political process –balanced against other competing priorities. These are questions that the Legislature will ask in its policymaking role.

What performance measures should tell us:

  1. Are we achieving our statutory public purpose as defined by our goals and objectives?
  2. What does the program do?
  3. How effective is the program?
  4. What are the key policies being monitored?
  5. What successes do we want to highlight?
  6. What performance improvements are needed?

While ultimately performance is defined by the Legislature, performance measures provide information that can help decision-makers understand what and how well government programs are doing and whether their policies are having the intended impact of improving the lives of Maine people.

Jody L. Harris is the Strategic Planning Coordinator, Maine State Planning Office

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