How often do you give your city or county a physical? That’s right, cities, like people, need periodic check-ups. As a local government manager or administrator you might want to check on your city or county’s health regularly—at least quarterly and preferably each month.
While human physicals are standard and just about universal within the medical profession, city physicals—or Vital Signs—are individual to each local government. They depend on what’s important to your residents, business leaders, and elected officials. Vital Signs may relate to issues of the moment or to long-term goals adopted by your governing body.
Avoid Unpopular “Big Fixes”
Cities can bleed too! And we have all seen this during recessions. Commercial and residential building permits slow to a dead crawl. Housing values plummet and sales tax revenue comes in short. Economic development—business retention and expansion—halts. Your tax base gets slammed.
As with emergency treatment of wounds, you take quick but often unpopular actions to stop the municipal hemorrhage—purchasing and hiring freezes, surgical or across-the-board budget cuts, employee layoffs, or a sizable transfusion of rainy day funds. As a last resort you recommend the big fix with huge losses in political capital—raising taxes.
Having a set of Vital Signs can provide an early warning of actions you might consider to avoid the need for an unpopular “big fix” by keeping your city healthy and able to respond rationally and quickly if indicators trend downward.
Vital Signs for Your Community
While you may have hundreds of performance measures (or more), Vital Signs are a short list of measures
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that, when looked at together, give a manager or councilmember a sense of the health of the city. As with human physicals, city Vital Signs may not be tracking toward the targets you set. In this case your staff may want to take a deeper dive and see what’s behind the performance—are things getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?
So what are your local government’s Vital Signs? They might include indicators of programs or issues that are important to your community. Or they may be a holistic set of metrics that relate to revenue projections, community crime (Part I violent and property crimes), transportation, or fire and emergency medical services.
Bellevue, Washington, took its Vital Signs to the community for validation through an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant to the National Center for Civic Innovation. And staff found some interesting differences between what managers and residents saw as important. In Bellevue’s study of its Vital Signs, for example, police managers did not view emergency response time (“lights and sirens”) as an important indicator to watch, since it was only a small percentage of their work. Yet, residents rated “lights and sirens response” as the most important of all Vital Signs measures. One resident commented, “If I call the police I want to be certain they will come here quickly.”
When you start choosing your Vital Signs make sure you keep your list down to a manageable number. Fifteen might be all that’s needed for a city manager to regularly review. Five to 10 might be appropriate for a department, and fewer might be right for project-based initiatives that can be completed in a short time.
Vital Signs to Consider
Here are some areas to consider as you develop Vital Signs:
- Part I Violent and Property Crimes: Most police departments report data quarterly to the FBI. You can write goal statements and targets at the category level, and if your community is facing a specific crime issue—such as burglary—you can track this data also.
- Fire Data: Numerous metrics are available for you to consider. Remember, look at results or outcomes. For example, favor confinement of fire to the room of origin rather than response time to the structure. Response time is important to the department, but a city manager should focus on outcomes.
- Revenue Production: Depending on your local government’s revenue cycle, you might monitor revenue on a quarterly basis, or more often if you have the data. Economically sensitive revenues, such as sales and property taxes, should be your focus. If your city has a sales tax, you might want to look at collections—not only at current month revenues compared to previous months, but also at month over month data from previous years. You might look at projecting revenues quarterly to develop confidence in your revenue estimating. Another measure that combines revenue and expenditure estimates on a quarterly basis might let you know that it is time to slow spending so you are in balance at the end of the fiscal year.
- Economic Development: If your city or county has a robust economic development program you might want to look at businesses retained, attracted, or leaving your jurisdiction. This can easily be set up on a quarterly basis. One excellent measure of your economy—although not easily collected on a monthly or quarterly basis—is the percent of your region's job growth captured within your own community.
- Capital Projects: If you borrow money or sell general obligation bonds to finance your capital program, you might want to look at monthly or quarterly spending against your projects. Although most capital projects may take more than one year to complete, you might want to keep an eye on project spending regularly to determine if your borrowing was sufficient to fund your projects or if you issued bonds that raised more than you can possibly spend, subjecting your city to federal arbitrage rules. Looking at individual projects also pays a political dividend when you know that key Council projects are moving ahead as planned.
Do you know the health of your city? Vital Signs can help you keep tabs on the issues facing your community and on the key priorities of the elected leaders. Once you decide on your community’s Vital Signs, department staff can provide the data you need to report regularly to your leadership and to the community.
Editor's Note: Rich Siegel describes himself as a passionate performance management advocate and expert: “I really do believe in this stuff and after all the years of doing it with Bellevue, I cannot imagine a city that does not use data and evidence to inform decision-making—even though a lot are.”