Outcome Measures

Dear Management Doctor:

Your study has been helpful in many ways. (Like when developers say in public how bad we are, I bring up your study.) The study also justified the approval of increased fees. We are requiring digital submittals to the Planning Department. Baby steps into the flat word. It is clear we will never get the same level of technology as the Police and Fire Departments, but I keep trying. I do have a question for the Management Doctor.

I know you have discussed this issue previously but could you shed some light in my direction. We are in the era of declining tax revenues and the 2008/09 budget process is very, very tight. The City Manager just announced that the 2009/10 budget process will be totally different; budgeting for outcomes. An ICMA Press article was distributed, Your Budget: From Axe to Aim, by Darin Atteberry, (City Manager of Fort Collins, CO) and (Camille Cates Barnett, Public Financial Management Group). The article cites, The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis, by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson and Budgeting for Outcomes: Better Results for the Price of Government, ICMA , IQ Report, February 2005. Can you shed any additional light on the subject for a Planning Director of a 5-person department with a budget of approximately $550,000?


Mark F. Miller AICP/PCP
City of Troy

Dear Mark,

Glad to hear the study we did for your department has had some good use.

Although I applaud your City's looking at Outcome Measures, you are in for some messy times. Numerous communities and states have gone down this route for a few years and many have dropped by the wayside. Nevertheless, I do believe in using both Output and Outcome measures, but also recognize how difficult they are.

I suggest you start by reading Chapter 27, "Measurement" in my new book, The ABZs of Planning Management, Second Edition. You will find some 14 pages of useful ideas. In addition to the books your City suggests you might also consult:

  • We Don't Make Widgets by Ken Miller, Governing Books, 2006.
  • Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough by Mark Friedman, Trafford Publishing, 2005.
  • Municipal Benchmarks by David Ammons, Sage Publications, 2001.
  • Measuring Up by Jonathan Walters, Governing Books, 1998.
The first question is: does your community really want to measure what is often called "End Outcomes?" These could be things like:
  • Reducing the carbon footprint.
  • Increasing sales tax.
  • Building more low-income housing, or depending on the community it could be building more high income housing.
  • Shorter commutes and public transit ridership, more walkers or bikers.
  • Saving trees, wetlands, historic structures etc.
  • Percent of home ownership.
  • Aesthetics of the community as determined by public opinion or even professional opinion.
  • Citizen or business satisfaction on a variety of issues.
  • Reduction in water usage.
  • Etc. you get the picture.
Keep in mind that all Outcome Measures are heavily value laden so the first step is to agree on the goals before you can start to measure.

The problem with many End Outcome Measures for planning is that planning only has partial control or impact on many of these issues. One approach would be to take all those grandiose goals and policies found in most Comprehensive Plans and put actual numbers to them and targets for improvement. Then you would have something to measure against. For example, I once did a plan for a neighborhood that was highly rental and we wanted to increase home ownership. We knew what the current percent of home ownership was and we could set a target for what we wanted. Then we were in a position to monitor over time to see if it was improving. If not, our various strategies were not working.

It is likely that in addition to End Outcomes your community will want to address Intermediate Outcomes or Outputs. These are easier to measures. Although not as good as End Outcomes, I believe they are still worth doing. Examples would be:

  • Are all of your plans and ordinances up to date?
  • If you have an adopted or stated work program, did you get it done?
  • What percent of your recommendations to the City Council did they approve?
  • Did you meet established timelines for various application processing target times?
  • Is your staff turnover rate below 10%?
  • How much does each Zoning variance cost?
As you know cities and counties ask me to come in and look at their planning and permitting processes. Interestingly, we are never asked to look at End Outcomes. It is always Intermediate Outcomes or Outputs. I think many elected officials as well as planners are actually afraid of truly looking at End Outcomes. For example, as planners are we really ready to say definitively that our plans and ordinances make a difference? I believe that the rise of Form Based Codes, New Urbanism, Sustainability, and the latest Carbon Footprint are all signs that our customers are saying what we have been doing is not good enough. Therefore, getting us to at least think about End Outcomes is a good sign.

Finally, it sounds like budget concerns may be behind the entire effort. If you divide your budget into two parts, each might be viewed differently. The developer customers want to get faster permits and more consistency. They are more than willing to pay for more staff to get both. The other part of your program is what many simply call "Planning." This is generally the tougher one to get funded and may be the one most susceptible to End Outcome measures. One of the reasons it is hard to get funded is that many governments or citizens don't see the value added results from all that planning. As planners, we simply need to be more efficient and effective in what we do. The best planning department I ever worked for had only one planner and a part-time secretary. That one planner brought in many million in grants, revitalized Main Street, had traffic calming proposals being built and joint park/school facilities, etc. Lean and mean isn't all bad.

Keep me in touch as this progresses.

The Management Doctor

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