Observations on Performance Measurement

Observations on Performance Measurement

At its base level, performance measurement is very simple: Set a standard and measure performance against that standard.  However, from this very basic concept the field expands to encompass a variety of intriguing aspects. In this and future blog posts, I hope to explore many facets of the field in ways that are both thought provoking and useful to practitioners – namely, general managers and those operating performance measurement systems.

Topics I aim to explore in upcoming blogs include:

  • Technology: How can and do organizations harness information technology to drive the entire cycle of performance measurement – from collecting information and analyzing and reporting on it, to facilitating effective responses to the information?
  • Use of performance information. Who can and should use performance information and how they can leverage their performance information to drive key organizational and operational decisions?
  • Sustaining a performance measurement system. How can an organization ensure that its performance measurement system outlasts any one leader?
  • Citizen engagement in performance measurement. What more can and should be done in engaging community residents in designing, carrying out and using performance measurement systems?
  • Other Performance Measurement Jurisdictions and Tools. What are other performance measurement indexes, and composite measures for complex domains such as teacher performance or environmental sustainability?
  • Leveraging Prior Performance Measurement Work. How can one find and use performance measurement work that has already been developed?

Knowing at what level or levels you need to measure performance is important to clarify at the outset of a devising a performance measurement system. One must decide to work at the strategic, tactical or operational level.

The old joke that “the operation was a success but the patient died” is not too far from reality in some cases where the strategic context of a public program is not addressed, while operational levels receive the focus. In one state education department, there were good measures of diesel versus gasoline school buses, but no real measures of academic success or value added provided by a year of instruction.


Often basic operational performance information is core to a performance measurement effort. The “Stats” movement – starting with William Bratton’s CompStat for police and expanding out to cities and states – started in the realm of operational performance metrics. This level focuses on how many potholes are found in a specific stretch of a street, and how long it takes to fill one once a request is received, for example. There is still much to be done to have regular operational performance metrics that are acted on in a timely manner across the public sector.


The tactical level looks at what the best way is to get the job done. This is the area that includes “best practices” and evidence-based management, and explores if an organization is using the best tools and paying the right price to get the job done. Metrics here often reach close to major strategic objectives. Take for example the widely viewed critical nature of reading proficiency by the end of the third grade as a predictor of future school success. At the strategic level, we’re looking at this measure (reading proficiency by the end of the third grade) in the context of achieving educational success for the system’s pupils. At the tactical level, we consider what the best tools are to bring every third grader up to proficiency by the end of the third grade – and if we are using the best tools for the job at hand.


Finally, at the strategic level of performance measurement, we identify the organization’s broad strategic objectives and the information we need to know what we are accomplishing and to what extent at a broad, organizational policy level. This can be fairly straightforward for a modest agency but can get progressively more complex with larger organizations or in comparing whole countries. For example, over the past decade the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has taken on the question of measuring well-being and measures to increase it. The Legatum Prosperity Index is one attempt to get beyond GDP as a comparative measure of how well societies are serving their residents.

Knowing which of these levels of performance measurement we are working at and how the three levels relate is an important component of a sound performance measurement system.

Lyle Wray serves as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments based in Hartford, Connecticut. He is a member of the board of directors of the Community Indicators Consortium. He co-authored the book Results That Matter on engaging community residents in performance measurement and community improvement efforts. He is co-author of the March 2012 article “community results toolkit” in Public Management. His email is lyle.wray@gmail.com

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