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Globe Editorial

Together we can manage better

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March 15, 2008

WHEN MAGAZINES publish issues picking the best colleges or the best places to live, the criteria they use can be iffy. But when no-nonsense Governing magazine rates Massachusetts a C for management efforts in its recent "Grading the States" issue, the grim assessment is worth a serious look.

The magazine found Massachusetts wanting in several key areas: $18 billion in outstanding debt, the highest in the nation per capita; up to $19 billion over 20 years in deferred maintenance for roads, bridges, and other transportation assets; an estimated $1 billion budget shortfall; decaying state buildings; outmoded computer systems for personnel information; and a budget that doesn't take performance into account.

Public managers in some states, notably Washington (A-) and Maryland (B), are making a serious study of ways to improve the operation of state government. They have adopted the so-called PerformanceStat model first used by New York City police to map and target crime hot spots. The method uses precise data to analyze achievements and glitches on the delivery of state services. Top officials, including governors, attend regular meetings where participants follow up on previous findings and set specific targets for future performance. It's not the stuff that might normally raise the pulse of politicians or the public. But it means that what government does gets measured - and can then be improved.

For Governor Patrick, the appeal should be even greater. The PerformanceStat strategy is, above all, a way to establish clear and attainable goals. That plan of action mostly eluded the Patrick administration during its first year in office.

To its credit, the administration is at least paying attention to states that operate more effectively and efficiently. Key people from the governor's office and the executive offices of transportation and health and human services attended a seminar this week, sponsored by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, that featured PerformanceStat experts from Maryland and Washington who updated local counterparts on the strategy.

From the stodgy-looking data templates emerged real opportunities to make residents safer and healthier. Maryland used the method to uncover and address a backlog of unprocessed DNA samples, enabling the State Police to get criminals off the street. Washington, the acknowledged leader in the field, uses PerformanceStat techniques to improve the time taken by state social workers to respond to child abuse calls, prepare investigative reports, and craft safety plans. And taxpayers benefit directly when the system roots out excessive sick time and other personnel abuses by state employees.

Patrick's rhetoric of hope isn't much of a management tool. Data might work better.

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