Here comes StateStat

Massachusetts joins the movement to track data to improve government performance

FOLLOWING THE LEAD of many cities and towns across the country, the state of Massachusetts is launching a program to harness more data that can be used to sharpen government performance and deliver not just services but results.

A new state law requires state managers to set goals, collect data measuring their progress in meeting those goals—and answer probing questions when they don’t.

Jay Gonzalez, the governor’s secretary of administration and finance, says the initiative will change the way state government operates. He says state officials are facing greater demand for services these days but with fewer employees and resources to provide them. “We need to work smarter to deliver those services,” he says. “The public deserves that.”

The stats-based approach to performance goes by many names around the country. In New York City, the police department calls their program CompStat. Baltimore coined CitiStat, Somerville has SomerStat, and Boston adopted Boston About Results.

All of the initiatives essentially rely on the use of data to guide decisions and improve outcomes. It can be as simple as keeping a dashboard of statistics showing managers how they are doing in relation to program goals. Once road blocks are identified, time and money can be spent keeping the course clear and the program on track.

SomerStat director Daniel Hadley says response times to resident complaints (potholes, sidewalk cracks, and fallen branches) at the Department of Public Works improved significantly when the data was reviewed at meetings with Somerville officials. Performance management “pushes employees to pay attention to critical goals they may not otherwise be focused on,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean that performance management is or needs to be adversarial. According to Hadley, managers sometimes end up with more staff or equipment when focused questioning and analysis reveal more resources are needed to meet established goals. 

Gonzalez admits that making big changes (which most people don’t like) in an organization with more than 44,000 employees scattered throughout the Commonwealth will be challenging. “It’s not easy getting everyone rowing in the same direction,” he says.

But he is optimistic state employees will embrace the new approach if it is managed correctly. He contends performance management helps employees at all levels “better understand how their work fits into the broader mission of the agency.” And the system will “provide more clarity about the goals their own performance is measured against,” he says.

Some state agencies are already using performance management. Customer wait times are routinely analyzed at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where underlying problems that lead to longer lines (high staff-to-customer ratios, absenteeism, more complex transactions) are identified and addressed. 

Just as performance management shape-shifts in different municipalities, it will look different in each state agency.  Improving performance is more complex in areas such as health care, where services are delivered by both state and external agencies. “We’re not trying to dictate any particular approach,” says Mark Fine, who is rolling out the program for the state at the new Office of Performance, Accountability, and Transparency. But he says several key components must be in place: measurable goals and data to track progress and guide budgetary, staffing, and policy decisions.

The first step is developing and disseminating strategic plans. All secretariats will post their plans on the state website by January. Fine says implementation of each plan will then be tracked through a rigorous system of data collection and analysis.

“Performance management is always a battle for better information,” says Fine. Using the right metrics is essential to get information that is useful in improving performance. “State government is often data rich but information poor,” he says.

The state is partnering with the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston to design and implement the new system. The Collins Center is helping state officials develop a training program to ensure performance management  takes  root  in  state  offices.  So  far,  several  hundred managers have been trained.

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If Gonzalez and Fine are successful, the next generation of state managers will have the tools they need to help them understand how well their own programs are doing.“No matter what your political stripe, you still want to know if what you’re doing works,” says Fine.