I think part of the appeal of sport competitions is that in almost all cases there is a clear winner and, consequently, little room for dispute about what constitutes success. Few people would argue that the New York Yankees had a bad year in 2009 when they won the World Series or that Italy’s World Cup soccer victory was somehow a failure. Similarly, businesses can usually claim success when they are profitable, particularly over an extended period of time. In general, cities and government lack commonly accepted measures of achievement, making it difficult to decide whether citizens are receiving fair value for their tax investment.
Albany is trying to address this shortcoming by participating in the International City-County Management Association’s Performance Measurement Consortium and by actively trying to achieve standards set by independent rating organizations. Our budget and financial reporting, for example, have received the Government Finance Officers Association Award of Excellence for decades; and the Public Works Department is pursuing accreditation by the American Public Works Association. Our goal is to achieve or exceed meaningful quality standards that translate into cost effective service to Albany citizens.
Finding the right things to measure and then documenting and analyzing them accurately is often a difficult and complex task. The City’s accounting system and budget process are good examples of the effort and resources required to meet necessary standards. Just as we cannot choose to stop following budget law because compliance is not cheap or easy, we should not ignore the need to measure and evaluate our performance.
Trust in government is apparently at an all-time low in the United States at a time when government effectiveness may be at an all-time high. Local governments have better trained employees, better equipment, and generally higher standards than they did a generation ago; yet support continues to erode. Setting and meeting high performance standards offers hope that government can regain citizen trust. The situation in Bell, California, where the city manager, council, and other officials received unconscionable salaries over the past decade or so, would be much less likely to happen in a city where standards are set, achieved, and communicated to the public. No system will eliminate dishonesty, but its likelihood can be reduced by effective performance measurement.
Performance measurement is also an essential tool to drive improvement. Changes in data over time or comparisons to other organizations often provide clues for being able to do things better. This data does not replace judgment; it informs it. Advances in medicine have, for the most part, not occurred by accident, but by rigorous study and collection of information. Government needs to learn from this example to drive improvement.
I doubt that Albany will win a world series or score a major victory over Corvallis in a government competition anytime soon. We are, however, receiving recognition for innovation and transparency in collecting and communicating information. I believe our ability to let our citizens know, with more than just our opinions, that we are achieving high standards of performance will help build and maintain the trust essential for thriving local democracy.