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How They Did It: Athens-Clarke & its new Performance Practice

As a GovEx Senior Advisor working with Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, watching their efforts to develop a performance measurement practice was inspiring, and a terrific example for other cities to consider. Along with an excellent project team, we had the strong support of Manager Blaine Williams, who gave clear signals to his staff that he wanted performance measurement to start playing an important role in government-wide strategy. As a result of Manager Williams’ leadership, Athens-Clarke County went from no systematic approach to performance measurement to a government-wide performance measurement system where all departments and priority areas developed appropriate measures for their missions and strategies.  

I spoke with Manager Williams to learn more about how he used the opportunity of our engagement to catalyze a whole-government shift to performance measurement. Later, I turned to Sarah George, Technical Trainer in Athens-Clarke County’s Organizational Development department, to get her take on the experience.

GovEx: The GovEx team was working hard with your staff on the idea of developing performance measures for one priority area. People were up for it, but certainly your decision to ask all departments to create performance measures just changed the game entirely and got everyone on board in a way they weren’t before. What led you to decide to jump in and implement it organization-wide?

Blaine Williams: I actually came to the decision to implement performance measurement when I worked in a previous county, Floyd County, Georgia. There, I basically did it alone, working with department directors to help them think through and produce a document. We didn’t change the culture, we just produced a document. I carried it around for ten years. I came here give years ago and wanted to try to implement a better performance management system because our budget document is all outputs.

For a while, I couldn’t get anything started here. Then we hired a couple of great Assistant Managers, and they were interested in performance measurement, but we still never got anything started until the What Works Cities (WWC) initiative came to us and you graciously accepted us in. That really gave us a shot in the arm so we could get focused and do this.

First, the key to this actually happening was somebody like Sarah [George], who is an internal champion, and who wakes up every morning thinking about this. I think, secondly, our affiliation with WWC and the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University (GovEx), and having some real expertise supporting us and facilitating the process. Number three, was the training you provided, because up until now it’s just been me and the department directors.

I told Sarah a little earlier that part of the problem with our inability to begin this process earlier, is that we missed the critical step of explaining why it was important. Having an internal champion, GovEx’s framework and training, and then my making it an immediate goal to produce measures made the process both understandable and relevant.

This time we told staff to just start with their mission statement. We asked [them], what is it that you do?  What we found invariably was that the mission statements were way too long overly flowery, and using adjectives you can’t measure. So we said: Tell us the essence of what we do and if we’re doing it well.” When we got their mission statements into something more manageable, I think that’s when it really clicked for them.  

GE: I love how you’re identifying some of the components that helped make it work. The idea of having an internal and an external component to the launch of performance measurement, the idea of starting with something familiar like a mission statement, as opposed to starting off in the ether somewhere. Lots of places could try starting like that. Now, timing. What are the factors that you thought made this a good time to start?

BW: The start of our What Works Cities initiative work. The budget process also offered a timeline that helped us move towards this. Our first manifestation of this will be done in time to appear in our budget document.

It’s not all about budget, of course. It’s going to take a year or two for us to fully internalize the process. We’re helping them choose objective indicators and goals – hopefully from a third party, industry best practices for example – and not choose arbitrary goals, and not pick indicators that just make them look good or make it look like they need resources.

GE: How are you offering feedback when department directors submit draft measures?

BW: We have them submit to us in Excel format and the three managers review them, divvying up the thirty-some departments according to our org chart. Some departments have a harder time than others, but I tell them it doesn’t have to be perfect, we can pull an indicator out if it doesn’t work. You want it to be as good as possible, and want it to be consistent, but it’s not the end of the world if it needs to change.

GE: How has work been across the departments?

BW: It’s a mixed bag and I’ll tell you why. Some department functions really suit themselves towards being quantified. Particularly engineering folks – they love it. They can quantify six ways to Sunday. Others don’t have the same ease in measurement. They default to compliance, as in “We’re 100% compliant.” We’re going to assume that you should be! They have to push a little more. Then there’s those that have some measures easily quantified, others not, and they’ve been trying to piece it together. I’m hopeful that the more they consider it and the quicker we can show them the end product of what we’re trying to achieve, the easier it will be. Ultimately it’s a culture change and it will take 2-3 years before it fully takes hold.

GE: Sarah, how does it feel to be supporting this kind of process?

Sarah George: It’s been challenging but motivating. Throughout the entire course of the project we’ve really ventured into new territory, and the opportunity to be involved in the culture change is exciting. Being given the opportunity to work on something like this gives you a whole new outlook on our organization, the role we play strategically in our community, and how we can best serve both our citizens and improve ourselves.

The whole mentality of continuous improvement and seeking excellence in what we do has just been very motivating to me as an employee. I’ve learned more about our organization in the last year than I knew in the many years that I’ve been here previously, and I’ve been able to witness some amazing talent that we have in this organization. From the talent development side, it’s been amazing to witness employees that might not have been considered, but  now have a powerful role in how we work moving forward. This is a different set of competencies and opportunity for people to shine, assessing their own work and its measurement.

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It’s always inspiring for us at GovEx  to spend time with government staff working hard to improve the way they assess and deliver services. If you’d like to learn more about our trainings or performance measurement framework, please take a look at the resources linked to our website. And if we’re not currently working together but you’re still ready to get started, consider the four elements described here: committed leadership, empowered internal champions, external sources of best practices, and a process that creates a logical deadline. These are the pieces that supported success in Athens-Clarke County, and might do the same for your organization as well.

The interview was edited for purposes of length.

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