Measure, Monitor, Adjust, Repeat: Cities Effectively Use Performance Measures to Achieve Community Goals

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“What is City government doing?

How well are we doing it?

How can we do it better?”

These three questions guide Devin Quirk’s work for the City of Boston.  Devin serves as Citywide Performance Manager and runs the “Boston About Results” (BAR) Program, an online database of performance measures that, over the last six years, has allowed the city to deliver services more efficiently and effectively to Boston residents. With roughly forty-five city departments contributing monthly and over 2,000 performance measures in all, the BAR program provides a central location to report and monitor city agencies’ progress over time.  Additionally, a publicly accessible scorecard provides transparency and accountability, allowing residents to view and track the city’s responsiveness to various community goals.


Although the comprehensiveness of the BAR program is quite impressive, Devin notes that the notion of tracking government performance through indicators is nothing new.  “The truth is, Boston’s been doing it for decades,” he says.

So if tracking performance is old news, why all the recent buzz around it?

The City of Boston, like many other local governments across the United States, recognizes that establishing baselines and tracking results helps to achieve targets quickly and efficiently.  The city’s Environment Department, which oversees many of Mayor Menino’s sustainability initiatives, utilizes the BAR program to not only track their own efforts, but also identify and work with other departments who are either intentionally or peripherally helping to achieve some of the city’s sustainability goals.  For example, as the city aims to reduce its overall carbon footprint, BAR is used to track greenhouse gas emissions for every large city department, breaking down emissions into four major drivers (gasoline, diesel, electricity and natural gas) and identifying areas where improvements can be made.

Similarly, for the last ten years, the City of Minneapolis, Minn. has used twenty- six indicators to track the community’s progress towards creating a more sustainable city.  For Minneapolis, where sustainability is defined by far more than environmental conservation and protection, these indicators cover a wide range of issues, from public health, education, employment and poverty, to air and water quality, transportation, and renewable energy.  The targets for each of the indicators are quite ambitious and require that the city partner with community groups, non-profits, and residents to achieve them.

It’s clear that the recent innovation and creativity in the field of performance measurement comes in the form of interdepartmental coordination, as well as collaboration with those outside of local government.  For example, we see that to achieve sustainability goals, local governments are recognizing their local partners non-profit organizations; faith-based institutions; and universities (to name a few)—and are accordingly measuring and tracking these groups’ efforts as well.  Similarly, while many cities have a standalone sustainability office, some of the most effective initiatives are those that tap into internal operations, connecting work already carried out by various city departments.  For example, Kansas City, Mo., known for its innovative programs and initiatives, created the Green Solutions Steering Committee, a partnership between 10 city departments that informs and guides the creation of the city’s sustainability metrics.  City staff from these departments pilot tested indicators within internal operations first to ensure that the final indicators chosen are those most relevant for city-wide sustainability goals.  Similarly, the City of Pasadena’s Department of Transportation has reframed its indicators to have a multimodal focus as a way to 1) align with city council’s sustainability interests and 2) help residents understand the tradeoffs between investments in various forms of transportation.

So, in many cases, the type of work isn’t new and the idea of measuring isn’t new, but howwe think about all of it sure is. Particularly for cities invested in advancing sustainability– whether it’s the desire to improve the quality of life for all their residents; increase the number of public parks and open spaces; provide more residents with access to transportation; or eliminate racial disparities in unemployment—comprehensive performance measurement necessitates the type of collaboration and communication that is needed within and outside of city government.

In this vein, cities are recognizing that identifying and developing indicators does not mean starting from scratch.  Rather, Boston’s BAR program and others like it are creative in the way that technology is used to measure the cumulative impacts of (seemingly) isolated initiatives; for sustainability, this means that partnership-based performance metrics are reframing the way local governments engage with stakeholders within and outside of city government.

As Devin says, “The ultimate goal of Boston About Results is not to measure performance, it is to find ways to improve the services we are delivering for Boston.”

Register for NLC’s Congress of Cities in Boston (November 28- December 1) to hear directly from Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Pasadena at the “Utilizing Performance Tools to Measure Your Cities’ Sustainability Efforts” workshop.

The workshop will focus on how data can help to forecast needs; the strategies to dynamically manage long-term sustainability goals; and the types of tools that are most effective to measure and track success.

Speakers include:

  • Gayle Prest, Sustainability Director: City of Minneapolis, Minn.
  • Katherine Carttar, Cookingham-Noll Fellow, City Manager’s Office: City of Kansas City, Mo.
  • Mark Yamarone, Transportation Administrator, Department of Transportation: City of Pasadena, Calif.


Also, come early for a special pre-conference training on “Implementing STAR: The Sustainability Framework Built By and For Local Governments” – Thursday November 29th!

Full conference schedule and registration information can be found here.