Guest Column

Performance Measurements for Whom?

By David Ammons

For many years, we’ve sought the wisdom of David Ammons, longtime professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written widely and is universally recognized as one of the leading scholars in the field of performance measurement and management. tHis new book, Performance Measurement for Managing Local Government: Getting it Right, came out this year and won much praise from practitioners, academics --  and from us!

Here's the link, to order his book:


We highly recommend it.

Years ago, city and county managers and their assistants would tell me that they were measuring performance. The measures, they would say, were not just for accountability but also for the improvement of operations. Yet, when I pressed these managers to describe how they had used their measures so far, most said that they published them in their budgets or used them in reporting performance to elected officials and citizens—that is, they reported them for accountability. Few mentioned uses for management purposes.

When I delved further and asked department heads or their assistants what had prompted them to measure  performance, many said they were doing it because the city or county manager required them to or the finance director insisted on it. Relatively few recognized the value that they, themselves, could derive from performance measures.

Today, more governments are interested in the use of performance information to improve operations and services, and to achieve better results. This is called performance management, distinguishing it from performance measurement and reporting—in which governments decide what to measure, collect the data, and report the measures. They now want to apply their performance measures to improving operations, the second task that city and county managers and their assistants have long claimed as a major purpose alongside accountability. Unfortunately, many of the measures these governments have developed in the past are ill-suited for use for management purposes—the use they now intend. Measures well-suited for reporting to elected officials and citizens may not always be the ones of greatest value to managers and supervisors.

To be valuable for managerial purposes measures must address the key aspects of operations that contribute to a program’s success or, if performed poorly, foreshadow its failure. Big picture measures are important, for they provide assurance that the program remains on course, but for day-to-day or even hour-to-hour guidance, more granular measures are necessary. Measures valuable for managerial purposes tell managers and supervisors not only whether their operation is complying with prescribed processes or strategies but more importantly whether it is meeting intermediate targets and achieving desired results. Above all, measures valuable for managerial purposes must be ones that, if unfavorable, will prompt in the minds of managers and supervisors, a reasonably narrow range of corrective actions.

            An inventory of the performance measures collected by many city and county governments would reveal that these governments are well-stocked with measures suitable for accountability purposes, while measures most suitable for management purposes are in short supply. But who could blame the managers for the sad state of their inventories? Most of the advice they received through decades of guidance on the design of performance measures focused on making the measures interesting to elected officials and citizens.

        Some measurement experts called citizens the “ultimate” audience for performance information. Few acknowledged the importance of managers and supervisors as a key audience and as the essential users, if performance information was to be a catalyst for better results. 

         Many  experts failed to acknowledge that the performance information needs of managers and supervisors differ from the performance information needs or interests of governing bodies and citizens. Some even suggested that a set of measures suitable for reporting to elected officials and citizens should also be sufficient for managers. After all, they said, the managers should just keep their eyes on the things most important to the governing body and citizens.

            Who could blame today’s managers for feeling a little misled and even set up by advice that steered them away from actual managerial needs? They look at their measures and see many that provide little guidance for management action. Sure, their measures show the big picture of how things are going in general, but they say little about the systems and subsystems that must be working well to keep the organization on track to meet its goals. Often, these big picture indicators fall short as actionable measures.

            For instance, consider a measure reporting that, say, 78 percent of citizens are satisfied or very satisfied with the local recreation program. What is the recreation director, much less a subordinate manager—perhaps, the manager of the outdoor pool—supposed to do with that? What action should be taken? The measure is insufficiently specific or granular to signal the kind of managerial action that should be taken.

       Satisfaction ratings are great things to collect, not only for their value in reporting to the governing body and citizens but also as a broad gauge to alert managers if things in general might be slipping. But for day-to-day management purposes, many other measures would be more valuable. That manager of the outdoor pool would find much greater value, for instance, in daily ratios of pool attendees per staff member—statistics that would guide staff deployment decisions and could influence the decision about when to shut the pool down for the season. Such a granular measure would not pass the citizen-interest bar, but it provides the kind of actionable information that managers need.

            Citizens and members of governing bodies prefer big picture and aggregate measures, if they are interested in performance measures at all. They like to see overall averages, composite indices that combine multiple aspects of performance, and measures that report the percentage of targets being met, even when frequently such measures fail to say what those targets are.

             Managers need more than that.  They need disaggregated measures that can reveal service disparities across neighborhoods or other service recipient groups. They need to know about performance dispersion, not just central tendency. They need to know about individual dimensions of performance, not just the aggregate.  They need to know about performance on each target. Only then is the performance information fully actionable.

            Performance measures for whom? It is time for actionable measures designed for managers and supervisors.



David Ammons, Professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is author of Performance Measurement for Managing Local Government (Melvin & Leigh, 2020).

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