Four Essential Elements of a Comprehensive Performance Measurement System

In human services delivery, there are several effective approaches to performance measurement. My leaning is towards an approach that is comprehensive and system-focused, while remaining client-centred.

A comprehensive approach will have four essential elements:

  1. Identifying the chronically underperforming services.
  2. Identifying the services that can meet performance standards with a little coaching and/or technical assistance.
  3. Identifying outstanding services that not only exceed performance targets, but also have a unified commitment throughout the organization on performance excellence, use of evidence-based practices and a sincere commitment to continuous improvement.
  4. Emphasis on financial stewardship.

Identifying chronically underperforming services to some may seem intuitive. “Haven’t we always known they weren’t very good at meeting the needs of the households they are funded to serve?” While true in some instances, it has also been my experience that a framework will show you that some of these seemingly chronic underperformers actually will do just fine with coaching and technical assistance (they aren’t as bad as you thought). And, it has also been my experience that there are some services that turn out to be chronic underperformers (but with a panache for spin) that you thought only needed a little coaching to operate well.

In an era of limited resources, it is important that we put our emphasis on coaching and technical assistance with those organizations that would benefit from it the most.  Outstanding services will need training and professional development too, but not the sort of coaching and technical assistance that other lesser performing organizations will need.  And some organizations are so entrenched at doing things poorly that no amount of coaching and technical assistance will help them achieve what is required for funding.  Wearing my teacher’s hat, I think of the pupil that has been just passing, but you know they have the potential and aptitude to be a solid B.  I will put effort into those cases every chance I get.  Or you may think of it as a track coach who believes seconds can be shaved off with some modifications to technique and repetitions to ensure it has stuck.

Too often performance measurement is used solely as a punitive measure. Nay, not so. It is an instrument of recognition and even praise as well. While I am baffled by organizations that set out to “create best practices” (which is impossible) I am not surprised when I see excellence in service delivery. Some of these organizations are the best kept secrets in their community. They don’t have a PR machine or an Executive Director with a penchant for the spotlight to tell peers what they are doing. And that’s okay. Some of what we do in having a performance measurement system has to be about finding ways to acknowledge those who do great things in great ways in a manner that is consistent. It is especially important to look at peer to peer collaboration opportunities and mentorship when some of these performers are identified.

Finally, a comprehensive performance measurement system will place emphasis on financial stewardship. This is the response to whether a system of services is not only doing the right things, but doing the best possible things with the resources available. With ongoing changes in programs and legislation, it would be foolish to ignore this important aspect of performance measurement. But financial stewardship doesn’t mean we just look at dollars and cents. There were far too many places that went to an extreme after, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s infamous piece on “Million Dollar Murray” appeared in the New Yorker. Financial stewardship is not about reducing our analysis to people as widgets and gidgets. But it is about looking at our units of service, and whether those units of service have a coherent financial foundation to why certain things are done in certain ways.

Aside from an approach that is comprehensive, it is also my ardent belief that it must be system-oriented while maintaining a client-centred perspective. Organizations in human services are funded to serve people, right? Let’s not lose sight of that. But let us not also forget that there are sectors of service. This is different from just analyzing performance based upon what the funding sources are and what the reporting requirements are of that funding. If we have a system orientation we know that all organizations within a sector of service have interconnectivity that cannot be ignored. We should have common performance expectations of, for example, all organizations that provide mobile street outreach;  a different set of common performance measures for all organizations that provide shelter; a different set of common performance measures for all organizations that provide drop-in services; a different set of common performance measures for all organizations that provide Housing First; a different set of common performance measures for all organizations that provide Rapid Re-housing; a different set of common performance measures for all organizations that provide permanent supportive housing; etc. We shouldn’t parse out the performance measures to say, for example, if you get funding for mobile street outreach from this funding source then your performance measures are X, but if you get your funding from this funding source then the performance measures are Y. That only weakens the system approach. It is commonality in expectation that can be grounded efficiently in appropriate evidence-based practices, supported by data and routinely monitored for the benefit of each client that interacts with the service. It would be a disservice to the people that we serve if, for example, one shelter offered one approach to services and was monitored to deliver them based upon one set of funding criteria, but another shelter a block away offered much less service and was monitored differently because they had a different funding source.

This type of performance measurement work is currently being done in Detroit. If you are interested in our approach to performance measurement work, let us know and we would be happy to share more with you.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong