'Benchmarks' of Government Effectiveness

April 11, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

PORTLAND, OREGON — Portland, Oregon.--Oregon, a perennial innovator among the states, has come up with an inventive way to measure how well it's doing. Borrowed from the corporate world, the approach is called ''benchmarks.'' And in contrast to many ballyhooed government reforms and management fads (remember ''sunset laws'' and ''zero-based budgeting?''), it may be here to stay.

First, it's a way to track, over periods of years, just where a state or city stands -- and where it would like to be headed -- on critical indicators about health, crime, education, the economy.

Second, it breaks with familiar government practice by measuring outcomes, not inputs. The question, for example, is not whether environmental regulations are in place, but are the air and water getting cleaner? It's not how many dollars are spent on teachers and schools, but are kids learning, and to what standards?

Third, it's a system of goals developed through broad popular participation and then ratified and given the force of law by action of the legislature and governor.

Finally, it's designed to last through successions of political leaders.

Benchmarks began in 1988 with ''Oregon Shines,'' a strategic planning exercise started by the governor at the time, Neil Goldschmidt. Hundreds of Oregonians -- from business, labor, education, environmental groups, state and local government, the health-care system and grass-roots organizations -- developed the official set of benchmarks for the state.

Then, 18 state legislative committees reviewed and approved the proposed benchmarks. In 1991, the legislature enacted the benchmarks into law. The lawmakers also created an Oregon Progress Board to make sure the process stays alive and on target. Each two years, the board has to report publicly on progress toward each benchmark goal. It's headed by the governor and designed to be bipartisan.

Mr. Goldschmidt and his successor, Barbara Roberts, are Democrats, but Ms. Roberts actually appointed David Frohmeyer the Republican she had defeated for governor in 1990 -- to sit on the Progress Board. ''I needed him there to show the board is really bipartisan. And he has a good head,'' Governor Roberts told me.

Benchmarks are necessary, she argues, because ''a lot of government programs, written with the best intentions, don't reach the goals they were written for in the first place. You have to be willing to measure yourself. This focuses you on results.''

All together, Oregon has 272 benchmarks, divided into two classes -- priority standards related to acute questions (health-care access, drugs, reducing teen-age pregnancy, for example) and ''core'' benchmarks (for more long-term, fundamental issues such as the base of the state's economy and basic literacy of the population).

All are based on measurable outcomes. Teen-pregnancy goals are quantified in the pregnancy rate per 1,000 females aged 10 to 17 years, for each of the target years -- 1995, 2000 and 2010. Social harmony is measured by hate crimes per 100,000 Oregonians per year. Urban mobility is measured by the percentage of Oregonians who commute to and from work by some means other than a single-occupancy vehicle.

The benchmarks got everyone's attention last year when Governor Roberts, facing a seemingly cataclysmic 17 percent budget shortfall because of a voter initiative, cut all state agencies' budgets even deeper -- 20 percent.

Then she offered a 3 percent ''rebate'' to agencies able to shape their programs to achieve benchmark goals. The legislature ratified almost all of the governor's benchmark-targeted budget measures.

Over time, as actual performance of the state is compared to the benchmarks, problem areas will stand out and one can expect lawmakers and the governor to come under heavy pressure to recast programs to meet the goals that they -- and the citizenry -- have so clearly, and publicly, ratified.

Oregon's benchmarks are being emulated -- Minnesota has a similar ''milestones'' program, for example, and there are other versions developing in Maine, Hawaii, Florida, Texas and Ohio.

And now the approach is going local, too. Oregon has pioneering versions in rural Baker County and Deschutes County (Bend). Multnomah County Executive Beverly Stein and Portland Mayor Vera Katz have inaugurated a joint Multnomah-Portland benchmarking process that incorporates the most relevant state benchmarks and then adds one that local citizens want.

Local benchmarks may be critical to long-term success, says Duncan Wyse, director of the Oregon Progress Board. Why? Because ''more and more we're seeing the action -- how to improve education, reduce drug use or teen-age pregnancy, for example -- is in communities, not in federal or state programs.''

The tough question, of course, is whether benchmarks will end up making a real difference in the conditions of life in a state. Do they have a chance against the negative tides of family dissolution, lawlessness and flawed public education?

Just as goals, clearly not. But to the degree they oblige states and localities to measure what they do by hard numbers, by standards everyone has agreed on, they could provide welcome realism and perhaps even a prospect for more effective government.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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