Grading Government


Released at the same time as Gov. Haley Barbour's budget recommendation for the upcoming 2012 fiscal year was a report card for state government. Since 1997, state agencies submit performance reports along with their annual budget requests, as required by the Mississippi Performance and Strategic Planning Act. The document offers entertaining facts—the Department of Corrections' prison farms produced 3.18 million pounds of vegetables in 2010, for example—but what good is it?

The "performance measures report," as the statistics are officially called, lists quantitative goals for individual divisions within state government and the actual numbers produced by each division—a kind of scorecard for measuring the productivity of various agencies.

The data, and the act mandating its collection, are part of a broader system called "performance-based budgeting," which intends to apply private sector-style data collection and decision-making to government agencies and services. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, an avowed proponent of performance budgeting, convened a special legislative committee in 2009 to find efficiencies in government and has pushed the state Legislature to pass performance-budgeting laws, to no avail.

Last year, a Bryant-supported bill, the Mississippi Strategic Planning and Performance Budgeting System Act of 2010, passed the Senate by a 48-1 margin but died in the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill sought to tie agencies' appropriations to their performance, so that departments that did not produce their required number of widgets would face funding cuts to their budgets in the next year.

Bryant's office did not return calls for comment, but he presented performance budgeting as a way of safeguarding public money, in a Feb. 4 press release.

"The key is results," Bryant said in the statement. "Departments are allocated money with specific goals in mind. Simply, this process is an effort to provide more accountability to the taxpayers' money."

While Bryant's skepticism of current budgeting practices may have something
to do with his Republican affiliation and small-government outlook, performance-based budgeting has appeal that transcends partisanship.

In 2008, the non-partisan Pew Center on the States placed Mississippi among the lower half of states in the country for government performance. Pew gave Mississippi a C-plus, ranking the state above Arkansas, California and Massachusetts, among others, but below Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. The nationwide average grade was a B-minus. Mississippi lost points for lacking a statewide strategic plan and for not using the data provided by individual agencies to track progress.

"Agencies (in Mississippi) regularly submit performance information as part of their budget requests, though officials use this information to gauge efficiency rather than progress toward state goals," the Pew
report found.

In a 2008 paper on the practice of performance budgeting, the National Conference of State Legislatures noted that it was uncommon for legislatures to actually link their budget decisions to performance data.

"Agency personnel and legislators may have different ideas about what is important about an agency's work," the paper noted. As managers, agency heads might be interested in data on the productivity of their employees, such as numbers of reports filed or calls answered, while legislators might be more concerned with highway accident rates or unemployment rates.

Mississippi's performance data seem to fall into this rut. Legislators can find that the Department of Corrections farming operations sold 517,477 dozen eggs last year—of a projected 600,000—but cannot find how many released prisoners found jobs.

Similarly, the Department of Mental Health provided data showing that the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield reported 340,508 patient or resident days last year, or 89 percent of the projected 382,758. But the department's performance data do not address how well Whitfield actually provided its services, such as how many patients had to be re-admitted, for example.

Nevertheless, the lieutenant governor has asked Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, to submit a "Smart Budget Act" this year. "It is no secret that I am not a fan of the current budgetary system, and I will continue to push for performance-based budgeting in the next legislative session," Bryant said in a Dec. 13 statement.

Previous Comments


Making an effort to find out how well an organization is doing toward its fundamental purposes is always a good idea, but one that can be quite difficult and often unsuccessful in complicated organizations involving multiple working groups and stakeholders. Sound like state government? Ward Schaefer's article emphasizes two problem areas of performance based management in such organizations. The first is unclear or incomplete strategy. A strategy is an approach to getting something done and ought to align closely with a mandated purpose. The second is meaningful measurement, which feeds back to the first, showing whether the approach taken, and the work processes that ensued, produced results of the right kind, at a beneficial level. Growing and selling farm produce might or might not be a good strategy to rehabilitate certain criminals and extract a penalty owed society, if that is what is expressed in statute. But would a modified or different strategy perform better? Do 600,000 eggs affirm a strategy? Do 517,477 deny it? Alignment of core purposes, strategies, objectives, work processes, measurements, and initiatives for improvement can succeed, but not without ongoing, cross functional attention. Balanced Scorecard is one method for doing so. "Balanced" means tuning of strategies and performance toward stakeholder (legislator, public) expectations, financial results, capacity of the organization to learn and produce, and particular management and staff processes. Perhaps numbers of eggs projected and produced are related to the last perspective, but to the other three? It isn't clear. Whatever performance based system(s) the State might choose to implement, the areas of strategy and measurement require careful, ongoing, thought and watchful attention if the money and effort spent are to effectively assess and improve performance. 'Sounds like we're not there yet. But we can be. David Reynolds Jackson



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