Caught in the Cycle of ‘Urgent Over Important’? This Leadership Strategy Can Help

PerformanceState is a leadership strategy to address long-term challenges.

PerformanceState is a leadership strategy to address long-term challenges. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | A data-driven approach to governing, PerformanceStat is an effective way to focus on long-term challenges.

As a public leader, whether you’re an elected official or the head of an agency, it’s easy to spend all of your time consumed by the crisis of the week or of the day. It could be a negative newspaper article or a political fight or something else.

But here’s the conundrum: To achieve important, enduring results for the people you serve, you, as the leader, need to provide focused attention on your organization’s long-term challenges and goals, the internal performance issues that drive better outcomes for residents and a better return on investment for taxpayers.

What’s the solution? From our experience working with dozens of agencies and jurisdictions, having an ongoing, data-driven leadership strategy modeled on the time-tested approach known as PerformanceStat can help a lot.

As mayor of Baltimore, one of us (O’Malley) launched CitiStat, the first application of PerformanceStat to an entire jurisdiction. It began with a regular rotation of five weekly CitiStat meetings, each focused on a different city agency. For one blessed hour, in a large conference room, the whirlwind of the daily hot issues was locked outside the door.

What did the meetings look like? On one side of the table was the leadership team of the agency. On the other side were leaders with citywide responsibility, including finance, operations, IT, HR and legal. The focus of the data-driven conversations was on what was working, what wasn’t, why something wasn’t working and how to fix it. When problems were identified, participants worked to solve them on the spot if possible. If follow-up actions were needed, they were detailed in a memo that went out by the end of the day.

Some people mistakenly see the PerformanceStat approach as a “firing squad” for bad employees. It’s actually a way to shine a spotlight on your most effective leaders. By lifting up their examples and sharing approaches and strategies that work well, it encourages others across the organization to emulate their example. Moreover, by setting public goals with deadlines and tracking them in subsequent PerformanceStat meetings, it gives urgency and clarity to issues that the jurisdiction’s ultimate bosses—the citizens—care about most.

Another misconception is that PerformanceStat requires time in meetings that most leaders don’t have. The truth is, a leader’s whole week is a series of meetings—ones about other people’s agendas rather than, necessarily, the jurisdiction’s or agency’s. If leaders can spend 85% of every week reacting, shouldn’t they spend 15% achieving progress on the big things they were elected or appointed to do? On top of that, PerformanceStat meetings can actually save time, since cabinet secretaries and other senior staff don’t need to schedule individual meetings. They know there’s an upcoming “Stat” meeting soon.

Take the case of the U.S. Department of Treasury during the Obama administration. When the secretary decided to launch “TreasuryStat,” the deputy secretary tasked with leading the initiative, Neal Wolin, was wary. He saw it as just another set of meetings in a calendar already full of meetings.

Within a few months, the deputy secretary’s view had changed. As Wolin told Dan Tangherlini, the department’s then-chief performance officer, it was the only time during the week that he was able to focus on the most important issues facing the department. In the years to follow,

TreasuryStat would help drive important reforms, including moving federal benefits, such as Social Security, from paper checks to electronic. That alone has saved the department more than $100 million a year.

The focus on tough, long-term challenges through CitiStat in Baltimore, and later through StateStat in Maryland, led to tangible progress, including significantly reducing violent crime in Baltimore and considerably improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. It also drove important internal improvements, such as reducing overtime among city workers, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. A key factor in those successes was not only timely, accurate data to inform decisions, but also the repeated cadence of the meetings to focus on key challenges, meeting after meeting, until they were solved or sufficiently addressed.

So how can leaders start to implement a PerformanceStat strategy? First, get started with the data you have, rather than wait for “perfect” data, which is unlikely anyway. Data that gets used will get improved.

Second, keep in mind that the most important element of any PerformanceStat strategy is not the data or the room or the maps or the software. It’s leadership commitment. If everyone within your organization understands and knows that PerformanceStat is the way the executive manages the organization, it will be taken seriously and drive results. Without clear leadership commitment, PerformanceStat meetings can easily become what Robert Behn of the Harvard Kennedy School calls “MimicStat”—just a show-and-tell session.

Mayors, county executives, governors and agency leaders will always need to skillfully respond to the urgent issues they face to survive, politically, in their jobs. But results-focused leaders know they need to do more. They carve out time for meetings like PerformanceStat to focus on key goals and long-term challenges. In doing so, they’re strengthening trust in our democracy by demonstrating that government can tackle our most important public problems. That’s the type of leadership we urgently need.

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton and also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He served as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

Martin O'Malley served as Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015 and Mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007. He is the author of the new book Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age

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