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Doing Stat without “Stat”

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Image Credit: www.lumaxart.com

Sometimes, when we’re talking to cities that are just beginning a performance practice, our city champions will express that starting an “official” city Stat program doesn’t feel like the right move. When they look at our “Is Stat Right for You?” questionnaire, they see they still have a number of steps to go. Or sometimes the city’s culture doesn’t feel ready for Stat.  It can feel like a pretty steep climb to go from holding no performance meeting at all to holding a monthly Stat meeting for every department at least once a month.

For that reason, we’ve worked with cities who are newer to the performance work to consider starting to do “Stat without Stat” — that is, find ways to make use of the important data they’ve identified as accurate measures of their goals in regular internal conversation. We’ve found that if you’re not yet ready to commit to a full Stat meeting practice but you would like to create a more regular culture of discussing data and goal attainment, there are intermediate stages that might be right for your city.

While there are a variety of meeting forms and scheduling plans that might ultimately work for a city, we believe that all performance work stems from a good performance framework. The first task for any city to undertake is developing a clear and specific set of goals, metrics and targets that allow everyone in the organization to understand exactly what the city is trying to accomplish and how it will be measuring its progress. We sometimes also call this a goal “taxonomy” because it’s a hierarchical classification that demonstrates the relationship between top-level goals, the activities being implemented to achieve them, and the ways of measuring all of those activities.

taxonomy

Once a city has developed a clear set of goals, indicators, and targets (and assured access to the data it needs to measure them), it is ready to put this framework to use. What are some of the ways that it can make that happen? This post discusses three possible options:

  1. Convening cross-departmental problem solving meetings
  2. Adding performance framework data to an existing problem-focused meeting
  3. Creating episodic meetings and analysis as needed

 

Cross-Departmental Problem Solving Meetings

My colleague Matt Raifman’s favorite “Stat without Stat” is the cross-departmental problem-solving meeting. In this form of meeting, the focus is expressly on achieving the city’s goal, not on assigning blame. He describes how it can be a gateway experience that allows people to try out the model before growing it.

“In Seattle,” he notes, “the city’s Organizational Performance team developed data-focused meetings that bring together data, performance measures, outcomes, and departments to better allocate resources to solve problems for the residents of Seattle. While it initially focused on bringing together a cross-departmental group of stakeholders to discuss affordable housing, the team is now expanding its efforts to move the needle on other citywide priorities and working with all 26 departments across the city.”

If you are trying to create a cross-departmental problem-solving meeting, you can begin doing it in a fairly lightweight way. There are three basic steps:

Convene
To ensure collaboration among all the necessary players, a cross-departmental meeting that focuses on a particular city priority should be be convened out of a central, high-level agency like the mayor or city manager’s office. The mayor or city manager’s office should clearly identify the priority, ensure that all relevant departments know that this will be a meeting for dealing with the priority in a creative but concrete way, and that the city will direct resources to support solutions developed through these meetings. If possible, it’s helpful to schedule a full year of meetings and topics so that you can be sure to have all relevant players in the room for the issues you’re planning to discuss.

Monitor and Brainstorm
Problem solving meetings need not follow a specific format to be effective. What’s most important is that they focus on developing and implementing solutions to the problem at hand.

In cities where there is a centralized performance team, it is common for team members to be responsible for a portfolio of issues for which they become the de facto expert. In this setting, the portfolio lead is charged with collecting data, monitoring performance, pulling out interesting insights, preparing materials to facilitate the discussion, and following up after the meeting. The advantage of this model is that impartial, centrally located analysts can introduce novel insights into the discussion and serve as a mediator between city executive leadership and departmental subject matter experts.

In cities without a centralized performance team, departments and individuals who manage subject matter level data are typically responsible for preparing analyses and briefing materials for the meeting. The advantage to this approach is that it requires fewer staff and leverages department subject matter expertise; however, sometime departmental staff are less able to provide impartial analysis than centralized analysts.

Regardless of the staffing structure, there are a number of questions that the meeting participants should consider in each meeting regardless of the topic:

  • Why is the trend line off? What do you think is contributing?
  • What in an ideal world could you as an individual or department do to move it in the right direction?
  • What is impeding you from delivering on what could contribute to improvement in the metric?
  • What can I do to help you to affect those challenges?

Want more ideas for questions to ask? My colleague Eric Reese helped develop a useful list of questions for staff in the city of Tacoma to consider before and during their meetings.

Follow-up
Meetings should produce clear next steps for analysts or departments that are captured in a follow-up memo.
Follow-up items are not always about making policy or programmatic change, but may focus on follow-up analysis. The group, for example, may realize that it needs an analyst to evaluate the possible courses of action brainstormed in the meeting. Another next step might be the need to acquire more data about the problem: additional contributing factors or environmental elements: to improve data collection and accessibility. You may learn you need to make some data more accessible, or better quality, or more frequently collected, in order to be able to measure what you’re doing. Finally, departments may wish to simply try some of the solutions brainstormed in the meeting, with a goal of evaluating how those changes affect outcomes by the time of the next convening. Subsequent meetings usually begin with a check-in on the status of follow-ups from previous meetings.

 

Add Performance Framework Data to an Existing Problem-Focused Meeting
If your city already has a taskforce, commission, or meeting dedicated to solving a specific city problem, there may be no need to bring all of those people to a separate meeting dedicated to the topic. Rather, it’s possible to add performance data to the existing meeting, to ensure that when attendees are talking about the goal of their work they are focused on the same outcomes and the same strategies for getting there.

A great example of this is the way the City of Knoxville developed and added performance measures to their standing meeting on Abandoned, Blighted and Vacant buildings. Cheri Hollifield, an Administrative Specialist with Knoxville’s Neighborhood Codes Enforcement department, noted that assessing performance measures added an important new dimension to the committee’s work.  

“The Abandoned, Blighted, and Vacant Properties Committee makes continual progress in the battle against blight, but often does so by narrowing its focus on either specific properties or individual factors that contribute to blight,” she said. “This approach can make it difficult to measure the widespread impact of our efforts.  By setting performance measure goals and reviewing the data in our meetings going forward, we will be able to quantify the number of blighted properties and track our overall progress toward reducing blight across the city as a whole.”

If your city has already determined that an issue is important enough to merit a standing meeting, it is worth exploring whether you could help it work better by building in the big picture. Adding a performance framework to your issue-focused meeting ensures that you won’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Episodic Meetings and Analyses
A third approach to using the performance framework is to employ it in stand-alone meetings or decision processes.

For example, if a city manager wants to learn more about what’s happening in departments but is not ready to set up an ongoing process, their office can lead a roundrobin of data-focused meetings in departments covering all of the taxonomy’s strategic focus areas. (This may currently exist in the form of a Department Manager meeting, where a city manager or mayor gets a quick high-level picture of developments in each department.)

By doing this even once, the city manager gets a significantly improved view into what each department does and into how their work relates to the city’s top priorities. As with the standing meeting, managers should take advantage of the opportunity to do some problem solving. They can ask departments: what are your challenges? And how do those challenges relate to the city’s priorities? Where are you falling short, and how can I help you solve those problems?

The performance framework and its associated data can also be used in operational or programmatic decision-making to align decisions with established strategic priorities. It can be used less formally as a mechanism for deciding whether programs and investments should be pursued – a gut check on whether something is valuable for the organization — or more formally, as it is in budget processes. When a city is trying to decide how to allocate resources — evaluating cost effectiveness, cost-benefit analyses, predictions or evaluations of impact (including low-cost evaluations) —  it can use the performance metrics to ensure that the effects that matter are those which are tied to the city’s highest priorities.

Finally, a repository of data associated with the city’s top priorities and planned routes for goal achievement is a terrific resource for one-off analytics projects. Analysts can be tasked with responding to individual challenges using the performance framework data as reference data when the city is faced with a need to answer a particular question. Even outside of a pressing need for analysis, analysts can be charged with routinely providing insights based on the city’s performance data.

Getting Started
If developing a formal Stat program feels like it’s not the right move for your city right now, there are still a number of routes you can take to putting your goals, measures and targets to work. The most important thing is to choose a venue or method for looking at how your city is doing and to commit to finding ways to move forward toward your goals. After some time doing that, doing Stat with Stat might turn out to be a good next step. Or perhaps you’ll be as creative as some of the cities we’ve worked with and develop a new method for using the performance framework to improve the way your city serves its residents. If you do, let us know—we’d love to share it!