Legislating for Results

After years of talking with local elected officials frustrated about not having good information on which to base program and budget decisions and to use for communicating with citizens, the National League of Cities and the Urban Institute, under the guidance of a local elected official advisory committee, has developed ten action guides representing key concepts related to gathering, analyzing, using, and communicating information in order to “legislate for results.” The Action Guides are intended to provide a way to begin thinking about legislating for results. Most of what is suggested here applies both to those local governments that already have an on-going performance measurement process and those that do not. It also applies whether the government has a line item, object class, or program budget.

Introductions and Definitions

1. Getting Information on the Right Things

Obtaining information on program progress and results are critical to a council's oversight and decision making roles. Most local governments have departments that already collect and report data regularly on the results of at least some or their activities - such as crime counts, traffic accident rates, library use counts, and response times to calls for emergency services. Because local elected officials are often flooded with information, this guide focuses on how to get useful and understandable information on the results of local government services.

2. Getting Good Quality Information

Presentation is a key part of making information useful. Too often performance information provided by departments is unclear and difficult to comprehend, especially for elected officials who have little time to pour over tons of data. This guide suggests actions to help assure information is presented in an understandable, accurate, and useful manner.  Also of great importance is the quality of the data provided to you. "Garbage in; garbage out." - this old adage is equally applicable to the performance information council members receive.

3. Using Outcome Information in Strategic and Program Planning

Effective long-range planning is important for successful government. This Guide provides suggestions for strengthening long range planning by assuring that the plans are relevant and focus on the results your community needs. Strategic planning is an important activity for elected officials to consider the future development of the community. Elected officials should periodically consider where the community wants to be over the next several years and develop a multi-year plan for achieving it. This type of planning can be considerably more valid and useful if it starts with baseline data for the outcomes being sought, provides annual target values for each outcome track, and is able to monitor progress towards the plan.

4. The Operating Budget

A key element in any elected official's job is developing an effective municipal budget. This requires asking the right questions and getting the right information to develop a worthy budget. Since the pressures of the budget can be considerable, council members often make quick decisions based on, at best, partial information on the results that can be expected.Budgeting decisions should explicitly consider the results expected, as well as the costs.

5. The Capital Budget

The future is difficult to predict. Decisions require not only solid facts about the past and dependable projections for the future, but also the potential consequences of the future. Decisions on capital projects, such as new fire stations, local road construction, major water and sewer projects, new libraries, or a new convention center can encumber the community's funding for many years into the future. Making these decisions is an important task for elected officials who have the responsibility to make sure they benefit citizens sufficiently enough to warrant the capital and any added annual operations and maintenance costs. Unfortunately, few capital budgets or capital improvement plans currently include information on the specific benefits and who will directly benefit from them.

6. Reviewing Results and Costs of Services and Policies Throughout the Year

Elected officials need to encourage actions by their departmental agencies to improve services to the public. The time between budget seasons provides opportunity for officals to examine programs and policies more in-depth and in a less hectic atmosphere than during budget season. Performance reviews provide the opportunity to obtain a better understanding of programs and issues and to identify the need for corrective actions.

7. Motivating Personnel to Continually Improve Service Outcomes

Convincing public employees to strive for continuous improvement in the services they provide to the public is a key role of all elected officials. Elected officials have a key part in motivating city employees and can play a very helpful, positive role. Council member interest in, and use of, outcome information can play a major role in determining where local government employees focus their efforts. The more employees are motivated to produce good outcomes for your citizens, the better the outcomes are likely to be.

8. Motivating Contractors and Grantees to High Levels of Performance

Contractors and grantees have major roles in producing results. Financial arrangements can have considerable effects on their behavior. Traditionally, agreements between the local government and contractors or grantees specify how the service will be provided - but without any specification of the quality and results of the service. The inclusion in agreements of goals relating to results can have considerable motivating power. The incentives should be linked to good, achievable, and measurable results.

9. Communicating with Citizens and the Media

Citizens and the media are major audiences council members. They are likely to have considerable interest in the results of government services as well as tax levels, particularly if the information relates to their neighborhood and special interests. In addition, they can be a major source of information to council members in setting priorities and other deliberations. This piece suggests ways to develop a two-way dialogue  in setting priorities and performance indicators, helps evaluate services, understands what results are being achieved, and can understand and use the resulting information when needed.

10. Building Elected Official and Staff Capacity

Elected officials can quickly become focused on tax and revenue issues and government activities and have little time to focus on results-based government. Some form of education/training in results-based government would benefit most elected officials and allow officials to be feed a "lifetime of good governance."