Report

Getting It Done (Fall 2008 Trust Magazine article)

In Georgia this year, about two million people will renew their driver's licenses. Not all of them, of course, will line up at a Department of Drivers Services office, but those who do will wait an average of just six minutes each. A few years ago, they would've idled typically for two hours, undoubtedly grumbling about government inefficiency and bumbling bureaucrats.

They can partly thank Pew's Government Performance Project for the time that they'll save—and the annoyance they'll be spared.

Part of Pew's Center on the States, the project, based in Washington, D.C., identifies and promotes best practices in state-government management. And if that mission sounds dull and dutiful, the results are anything but.

Shaving precious minutes from a wait in line marks one level of achievement. At another level, Washington state has made it a priority to protect vulnerable children from abuse. By focusing on results, tracking data and holding state managers and front-line workers accountable, Gov. Chris Gregoire and her management team have spurred social workers to respond much faster to reports of child abuse. In just three years, 24-hour response rates have risen from 74 percent to 90 percent.

In addition, Washington children are now safer in the long run. Quicker responses to abuse have significantly reduced the number of children who are abused again within six months.

With the project's help, state managers around the country have found ways to make government “faster, friendlier and easier” for citizens, as Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue puts it.

Georgia, under Perdue, has been one of the leaders in the push to make state governments run better by importing and adapting management techniques, information systems and performance measures from the business world.

The initiative has been one of his lodestars. “We began this process back in 2003 with the goal to become the best-managed state in America,” says Jeff Strane, head of Georgia's Office of Implementation. “And the Government Performance Project is our scorecard—it's the best one out there. It represents what we thought to be the fairest approach to measuring the management of government.”

Strane is referring to the project's well-known Grading the States report, which is published every three years in Governing magazine. The assessment, as its name suggests, assigns grades to all 50 states based on the quality of their management.

Like all of Pew's efforts, the project is nonpartisan. It drills down into four critical areas of governance—people, money, information and infrastructure—and assesses how well each state handles them. A state can achieve a top ranking whether Republicans dominate its politics, as in Utah, or Democrats do, as in Washington state. Both states earned a grade of A- in the most recent report, rereleased in March, giving them, along with Virginia, the highest marks in the country. The lowest went to New Hampshire, with a D+.

Strane says that Georgia's push to improve its governmental management and raise its grade has resulted in moves such as a 10-percent reduction in the size of the state's automobile fleet. “We realized that we didn't have an accurate count of cars,” he explains. “When we counted, we realized that we could eliminate 2,000 of 22,000 vehicles.”

The grades garner lots of media attention—Washington Post political columnist David Broder, for example, trained his readers' attention on the March report, heralding a new generation of “governor-managers.”

But grades are only part of the project's efforts to help state officials refine their operations and better serve the public, says Neal Johnson, the project's director. “They're the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” he points out. “We think of ourselves as a catalyst for change. We start with the grades but now go beyond them by getting these best practices and practitioners onto people's radar screens.” To that end, Johnson's staff and affiliated researchers also make specific recommendations for reform in each state.

In addition, the project is focusing on management challenges in top-priority policy areas. In May, for example, the Pew Center on the States published Ten Steps Corrections Directors Can Take to Strengthen Performance. Why prisons? Because prison populations are swelling nationwide and straining state coffers. The number of inmates has nearly tripled over the last two decades, and in many states, it's expected to keep growing at double-digit rates for at least another decade.

“There are just some terrific opportunities in corrections,” Johnson says. “In partnership with the Public Safety Performance Project [also part of the Pew Center on the States], our team showed that there are real ways to improve performance—to help keep the streets safe and save money—if states properly plan and execute their policies and focus on things such as reducing recidivism and weighing the cost/benefit of prison construction.”

The project also convenes meetings. One was held in May in Washington, D.C., which brought together officials from 30 states. Attendees, many of them cabinet secretaries and agency heads, heard California's chief information officer, Teri Takai, explain how she's consolidating and streamlining one of the largest computer systems in the country in order to make better information available for budget and program decisions.

They learned, too, how Utah manages to annually set aside 1.1 percent of the replacement value of its infrastructure, earmarking the money for maintenance, and has more than $400 million stashed in a rainy-day fund. And they saw how Washington state is using new communication techniques in polling to learn where citizens want officials to focus their efforts.

“Pew gives us a chance to come together and say, ‘What are our industry benchmarks?'” says Larisa Benson, director of Washington's Government Management Accountability and Performance Project. “You don't normally get a bunch of chiefs of staff in a room to share this kind of information.”

And just before the National Governors Association Centennial Meeting in Philadelphia in July, the project convened former governors to discuss “effective state government policy and management”—focused on the management lessons they learned from their public service and new initiatives the project plans based on the recent report card.

State officials praise the meetings, yet the report card, understandably, starts most discussions about the Government Performance Project. Everyone understands letter grades, having dreaded them since grade school, and Americans have a lust for lists, whether David Letterman's Top 10, The New York Times bestsellers or the untold number of rankings of places to live, work, eat and vacation. Humans have been called the tool-making animal, but a better description might be the list-making beast.

The project's state-management assessments began about two decades ago with the work of two journalists—Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene. Partners in business and life, the writers, based in New York, did their original ranking of state governments for Financial World magazine. After Financial World closed, Pew approached them about backing and expanding the report. Barrett and Greene continue as senior consultants to the project and helped to research and write this year's report as part of a far-flung team of academics and journalists.

Michael A. Pagano, Ph.D., who is dean of the School of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, oversees the infrastructure research. He participates because Grading the States raises the visibility of good governance and sparks much-needed discussion about how states can improve. “The conversation is a prelude to any real change,” he says. “The conversation is people wanting to know why they received the grade they did.”

Put differently, the report creates a virtual town square, where officials can gather to debate—through the media, e-mail, phone calls and meetings— which practices work and how they might implement them. “We're advocating attention to the criteria,” Pagano says. “Which technique is used to reach a criterion is entirely up to a state.”

While some states dismiss the report when they receive a middling or low mark, others use it as an opportunity for frank reflection. A few years back, Alabama received a D, putting it not only at the bottom of the ranking but also behind neighboring Mississippi. After discussions with project researchers, officials there “reported back that they would've given themselves that same grade,” Pagano recalls.

Alabama began working to improve its performance, says Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council, a Birmingham think tank that advocates for budgetary and managerial reform. “I've always found here in Alabama that, if I can show that Mississippi is doing something better than we are, that's motivator enough,” he quips.

Like many states, Alabama faces tight budgets. Before its bad grade, one of the ways it economized was by cutting funds for the state police. “We'd underfunded the highway patrol for a number of years, and traffic deaths had gone up,” Williams says. “People knew they weren't going to get tickets, so they drove too fast.”

When Alabama officials committed to improving their performance, they made reducing highway fatalities a priority and devised ways to strategically allocate state troopers. “Now, they do these sweeps in individual counties,” Williams says. “They give out thousands of tickets, and then they move on to someplace else.” The sweeps seem to help. “Just the other day there was a headline in the paper about deaths coming down.”

To be sure, the state's bad mark—and Mississippi's better one—weren't the only reasons Alabama changed course, but the grades, in addition to serving as a goad, provided a benchmark for improvement. “The checking is a big value—it creates accountability,” Williams says. “If you don't have a system like this, how can you show that you're doing any better?”

Folks in top-performing states such as Washington and Utah are, not surprisingly, equally adamant about the benefits of the grading and the analysis that underpins it. “Human beings want to achieve, and friendly competition helps us focus our energies,” says Washington's Benson.

Just as the Government Performance Project recommends, the top-performing states have pushed to assign performance metrics to even hard-to-quantify functions—for instance, social services, as in Washington.

Critics might say that states long committed to good governance would have improved even without the project's scrutiny. Benson does not buy that, or at least believes that progress wouldn't have come as rapidly. “It would've been slower going,” she says. “The conversation matters, and you don't start the conversation unless you have the grade.”

John Nixon, Utah's director of planning and budget, agrees, pointing to the ways in which he and his colleagues use Grading the States and the project's meetings to keep getting better. As part of its HR evaluations, Grading the States gave Utah an average rating for its hiring practices and workforce planning, noting especially the absence of regular evaluations for all employees. “Our emphasis right now,” he says, “is on human resources,” which is why the state's HR director went to the May meeting. “We're working on a whole new HR system. That will help us move up that grade.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for proponents of government- management reform is that the field resembles insurance—it's essential, important and, except among its evangelists, perceived as administrative and procedural. Nixon concedes that and says he tries to drive home the relevance of his metrics, decision rules and process improvements by always thanking audiences of Utahans for their investment in state government. “You jazz this up by saying, ‘You're paying for government, and your dollars aren't being wasted.' Whenever I talk with people, I emphasize that we're trying to spend their tax dollars appropriately.”

When abused children can receive proper relief more quickly—and when the line at the motor vehicles department takes only six minutes to breeze through—citizens are well on their way to understanding that boring can be beautiful.

Go to www.pewcenteronthestates.org and click on Government Performance to access Grading the States 2008, as well as the project's previous reports.

Massachusetts-based freelancer Tim Gray writes frequently for Trust on management-oriented stories.