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Blogs / Performance Management / Some Questions Never Go Away

Some Questions Never Go Away

My first career step in local government was an internship in the city manager's office in Pensacola, Florida. I chose performance measurement for an internship project and MPA thesis.

I wanted know if performance in a number of city operations was improving or declining. Using the classic industrial productivity ratio of O/I—output divided by input—I analyzed five city operations: water, wastewater, and natural gas utilities, and a city-owned seaport and regional airport. For input variables I looked at both operating costs and staffing costs in constant dollars; and I selected 30 output variables, such as revenue generated, number of accounts served, number of enplanements, and tons of cargo.

Overall, the work indicated declining productivity over a five year period in the natural gas and airport divisions, and rising productivity in the water division. The wastewater division and the Port of Pensacola yielded mixed results from the various measures. I learned of a number of other ways to measure operational performance, including use of citizen surveys and observer ratings based on predetermined criteria. Those approaches came from a review of the literature and concepts of performance measurement in local government at the time. I completed the project and submitted my thesis . . . then I got a real job.

With my first paying job in local government, I pretty much put away performance measurement, regarding it mostly as an academic exercise. I did then, I have to say, what most city and county managers and their senior staffs do today. We relegate serious and rigorous performance measurement and analysis to the back burner, and often turn the burner off.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new in our profession. In 1938, a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago named Herbert A. Simon (who one day would become one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century and a Nobel laureate) was moonlighting as a research assistant for Clarence Ridley, then ICMA’s Executive Director.

Simon and Ridley published, first as a series of articles, and then as a landmark ICMA “green book,” Measuring Municipal Activities, with a second edition published by ICMA in 1943. Their body of work was both academically rigorous and practically useful. Perhaps it was too practical for the academics, and too academic for the practitioners, because little was done to build upon Simon-Ridley’s foundation in the decades which followed.

In the 1970s the rise of mainly Japanese manufacturing excellence in contrast to faltering American product quality sparked a “Productivity” movement which extended beyond the industrial sector. The Urban Institute’s Harry Hatry and others worked on developing efficiency and effectiveness measures for governmental operations. Soon thereafter calls for action also came from groups like the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) and the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). Again, however, interest and application within governmental entities at all levels lagged.

In 1994 ICMA stepped up its efforts by establishing the Center for Performance Measurement, which in 2014 was transformed into the Center for Performance Analytics. In cooperation with software developer SAS, ICMA Insights now offers a foundational platform for local governments to collect, share, and analyze performance data.

The ICMA developments, and other significant influences such as that of the Commonwealth Centers for High Performance Organizations (CCHPO), helped my team design and implement a management system to continuously improve efficiency and effectiveness when I later became manager in the City of Williamsburg, Virginia.

And so, I found myself toward the end of my career pursuing the same question as at the beginning: How well is my local government performing?


Thomas Miller

Great hike through history, Jackson. The connection of performance measurement in the early years to Simon and Ridley was news to me.
Like you, I am aware that performance measurement remains on the must do list of every professional manager. What still lags is the "what" part of the list as in "must do what?" My organization, National Research Center ( , is accumulating examples of how local governments have leveraged the information they get in citizen surveys to improve their communities. We expect to have an illuminating "playbook" that should help managers move from learning to acting.

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