By Chelsea Lei, Stevan Gorcester and Larisa Benson
People in government want to use data to inform or drive decision-making, but common barriers keep that an elusive goal. Many performance management efforts in governments focus on what software to use for data warehousing and visualization. Few focus on what we see as an almost universal barrier governments face in using data: the difficulty with knowing what should be measured in the first place.
The biggest gap we see today is public managers struggling to explain how the day-to-day work of departmental operations connect or align with the high-level visions of their elected councils and mayors. The lack of clarity about how to measure desirable community level outcomes and expectations of how the work at the front-lines contributes to achieve them creates confusion, frustration, disengagement and distrust.
As a result, measurement becomes an exercise in cobbling together some numbers to get the reporting requirement off of your back rather than an integrated way of doing and improving business. The problem is made worse when leaders have opposing views and priorities may shift with each electoral cycle. And the challenges are only compounded when technology-driven solutions become the focal point, competing for the attention, talent and resources needed to support daily service delivery.
We recognize that decisions about why, what, how often and for whom to measure are local, and there is no simple one-size-fits-all approach to measuring performance. At the same time, we believe it is possible to accelerate the understanding and adoption of leading practices by offering a standard roadmap for achieving mastery in fact-based government improvement through well-adopted measures that matter and well-facilitated learning conversations.
Through the Municipal Dashboard Project hosted by the Government Performance Consortium, we have been working to help remove this barrier by building a community of practice for local government practitioners in Washington State. We offer a roadmap to mastering fact-based government improvement. We find that by creating open-source resources and shared templates and hosting regular convenings of cross-jurisdictional peers, we are able to accelerate governments’ organizational learning. Users can more readily identify and adopt measures that really matter to inform decisions and make improvements.
In the spirit of inquiry, we created model dashboards for organizing, measuring and interpreting key results in two common areas of municipal operations and service delivery - finance and streets. These dashboards present a “whole systems view” of how operations and improvement activities in these service areas are integrally connected to community conditions and contribute to department-level and government-wide outcomes.
We developed these models through our own research and practical experience, and engaging local professional experts to crowdsource ideas and gather feedback. Our primary design principle was that performance dashboards should display measures that indicate the intended outcomes of a municipal agency or program instead of just data they happen to have. Similarly, an agency should go beyond measuring how much work gets done (portfolio metrics) to include what it’s trying to accomplish (outcome metrics) and how it plans to converge on goals (strategic metrics).
We asked our community of practice to engage in learning conversations about this central question: “What learning becomes possible when everyone sees the whole service delivery system they are part of?” The common theme that emerged from these conversations was that the best and highest use of data and dashboards in government is for collective sensemaking, storytelling, and social learning (that is, learning from people trying to do the same thing as you).
“You learn how to become a team,” says Connie Anderson, deputy director of Administrative Services at the City of Sequim. “I think it’s very helpful to understand where everyone falls into the whole process of service delivery.”
“It becomes possible to drive change in behavior,” said Eunjoo Greenhouse, deputy director of Finance and Business Operations at King County. “What we find is our dashboard becomes very useful to our customers. They can see how they contribute, how they impact the speed of our delivery and our error rates.”
“We learn to ask questions based on the story of the data shows and also seeing what needs to happen because of that story,” said Patrick Zellner, street maintenance manager at the City of Renton.
“I think one of the great things about [having a whole-systems-view dashboard] is that you can tie in these real life targets for work people [on the frontline] are actually doing with the strategic goals that they don’t normally see or have a hard time seeing,” said Erik Sloan, pavement manager at the City of Tacoma. “It helps you learn how your work, even at the most basic level like filling potholes, connects to those larger strategic goals that your agency or neighborhood wants to achieve.”
Reflections like these inspire us to believe that the people of government will pursue exceptional results with the right facts and a clearly stated purpose. Measurement and setting targets are critical elements of the improvement process. What we need is to help one another overcome the key barriers unique to the government sector, taking good ideas and examples from learning networks like the Government Performance Consortium and continuously adding our own ideas to advance fact based government.
We have put together a free and open-source Municipal Dashboard Practitioners’ Handbook as a living learning journal of strategies, tools, stories and examples for transforming government from the inside out through effectively using data to inform improvement. We invite you to join us in conversation and in continued learning and exploration.
Chelsea Lei is a civic researcher who co-created the Government Performance Consortium and led the Municipal Dashboard Project.
Steve Gorcester is the former Executive Director of the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board who pioneered the award-winning TIB Performance Dashboard.
Larisa Benson is the host of the Government Performance Consortium and former director of Results Washington (then “GMAP”) and performance audits for Washington State.
We are grateful for the opportunity to share our stories and insights about how to transform government from the inside out through a webinar hosted by the American Society for Public Administration on June 13, 2019.
Our slides and full recording of our presentation are available for download here.
GPC Municipal Dashboard Champions Convening hosted by City of Renton, June 11, 2019.
By Chelsea Lei and Larisa Benson
Joy. That’s what’s missing from our government.
On a sunny June morning, 50 people from twenty local governments gathered with anticipation at the Renton Community Center. They sat in concentric circles and leaned in to hear a conversation happening in a small circle at the center of the room. The topic was: "What learning becomes possible when everyone can see the whole service delivery system they are part of?" As the outer circles listened intently to the stories and insights shared by the inner circle, they began to smile and nod and take notes. Then, the conversation shifted outward and it was the inner circle's turn to listen to questions and comments from the outer circles. As the dialogue went around the room and everyone's voice was heard, there was a palpable feeling of joy in the room – joy of seeing and being seen by peers who share the same purpose and live the same challenge.
For four years, we have been working with this group, along with over 1,200 government practitioners across Washington State. Through training forums, practical workshops and peer coaching circles, we have been exploring the “next horizon” of the modern government organization.
Transforming the emotional experience of serving in government
We've come to see that a defining human experience of working inside government can be summed up by the term “emotional waste”.
Few working in government can say they have not wasted substantial amount of time and energy away from doing productive work while experiencing loneliness in silos, fear of uncertain change, shame of being called not good enough, frustration over ambiguous goals and unfulfilled values, overwhelm by workload and unclear expectations, cynicism about "flavor of the month" new initiatives, or despair from feeling small and invisible.
We think emotional waste is at the root of the structural and process issues that create public distrust and helps explain why performance strategies have not delivered on the promise to earn the public’s trust. Therefore, a key to improving government is to transform the emotional experience of serving in government.
To do this work, we would need to reframe performance in terms of progress and in a broader context of organizational health. This means attending to aspects of human experience - like purpose, mastery and connection - that transcend management, measurement and accountability. Groups of people who cultivate these human aspects will far outperform groups who are simply adopting the latest management fad and they will sustain improvement and innovation over time.
Accessing and sustaining joy is essential for transforming the emotional experience of serving in government. Joy is the emotion that accompanies mastery and a state of flow. What is high performance but working masterfully in flow? The joy we are talking about is not the happy-go-lucky feeling when things are going well at the moment. Rather, we are talking about joy that arises from pursuing purpose and joy that stimulates exploration, challenge-seeking, and striving to overcome great difficulty.
We know from neuroscience that our perception, cognition, creativity and ability to collaborate with others are all stronger when our brains are in a “toward” state, as opposed to a state of perceived threat. People in government have become conditioned to thinking with a scarcity mindset, as if they are under constant siege. As a result, we often fail to see the resources and assets that are readily available around us to solve problems at low or no cost.
Joy shifts our attention and focus from deficits to abundance, from doing things as they have always been done to trying a new way. Joy facilitates better and faster thinking than sorrow, despair, shame and fear. Joy also enables connection and cohesion, and deepens the wells of compassion necessary to engage with change, conflict and society’s most vexing challenges.
We envision a future of government where joy is a prevailing human experience of working in government. Governments will simply not get more efficient or effective if the people tasked to make that happen feel joyless at work. This future already exists, but only in small islands where seeds of joy have sprouted in an otherwise vast emotional wasteland. If we want a more vibrant society supported by a healthy well-functioning government, we need to cultivate those seeds and connect those islands until the seeds of joy are thriving on a broad scale.
A joyful government is one where the systems of work and structures of relationships support healthy human dynamics and development of individual and team mastery. A joyful government invites and supports people to access and sustain their inner sense of possibility, abundance, curiosity and spaciousness. A joyful government radically re-imagines its purpose as host of a generative space for humans to explore, grow and collaborate.
How to create more joyful governments
Based on what we have learned so far, well designed and facilitated meetings where everyone can contribute their voice and intelligence are the basic levers for shifting the daily experience of work inside government toward joy. Hosting communities of practice where practitioners can safely and authentically learn in public creates experience of joy through deepening connection and mastery.
It also helps to use a common language about what and how to communicate, and to encourage personalized lean practices that improve people's ability to make and see daily progress. Last but not least, cultivating mindfulness – our mind and body's capacity for understanding and seeing/feeling connections – makes accessing the inner energies of joy possible and durable for the committed practitioners.
Human flourishing inside government enables human flourishing outside of government. Governments should build public trust by building trust inside first. We believe that a more joyful government paves the way for a more trustworthy government that will support a world where more lives can flourish by design.
Chelsea Lei and Larisa Benson are co-creators of GPC.