A Preference for Outcome Measures

“Never mistake activities with results,” said John Wooden, the legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach, who knew a thing or two about winning. In sports, we all seem to know the differences between resources (inputs) like uniforms and salaries, activities (outputs) like conditioning programs and practices, and results (outcomes) like winning and losing games and titles. Fans and owners prefer outcome measures when evaluating coaches and players. Win games or you’re quickly out of a job! As I post this in late September, only three games into the National Football League season, the coaches of teams with losing records are already feeling the heat. The fact that they are very busy doing an impressive number of improvement activities (outputs) will matter little to fans and team owners.

What hard lessons can we learn from this preference for outcome measures in sports? In brief, it’s this: Courts need to shift their focus from measures of their outputs – hearings held, cases heard, and the like -- to measures of outcomes; outputs are not true measures of performance, outcomes are. The public and their representatives in legislatures and executive offices will increasingly look to measures of outcomes – real improvements in the status and condition of those served by the courts – before they lend their support to increasing the resources of the courts. Long gone are the days when courts can base their budget requests on a need for more inputs. (We need more money and staff because we don’t have enough. We need more because our court has less than the court down the road!) Nor will it help much to trump level of effort and number of activities. (We tried real hard and we’re busier than we’ve ever been!) To confuse outputs with outcomes is to mistake activity for accomplishments.

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