Q & A: A Public Accountability Framework

Q: “What is a public accountability framework?” This question came this week from Alice Phalan, Planning and Evaluation Manager of the Oregon Judicial Department, after she saw the term as a topic in an upcoming meeting in her state, and after she “googled” it and came up empty.

Q: The term public accountability framework, or PAF, was introduced earlier this year by my colleagues and me at the National Center for State Courts and CourtMetrics in the context of building organizational performance measurement systems for courts and justice systems in Arizona and British Columbia. In the argot of management, we’ll see if it has any legs!

PAF in Mesa, Arizona

In August this year the Mesa (Arizona) Municipal Court launched the “Good to Great” Public Accountability Framework (PAF) Project, an ambitious six-month project of building its performance measurement capacity, process improvement, courthouse design and planning, technology development, and strategic planning. The central task of the project is the development of a PAF that “frames” the other tasks. A PAF was defined as a structure of values, purpose, mission, strategic goals, and major performance areas that define the court’s key success factors and are anchored in a set of meaningful performance measures.

Mesa’s PAF, which is still in the development stage, has three major elements: (1) the key success factors for the court; (2) a set of unambiguous and actionable core performance measures; and (3) the linkage of the core measures with the key success factors. The Mesa Municipal Court tentatively identified six key success factors; the first three are “fundamental” and the last three are “enabling”: public trust and confidence; integrity; independence and accountability; timeliness; process management; and innovation and learning.
At the heart of the PAF is a court performance measurement system (CPMS), a set of interacting and interdependent processes including routine and continuous data collection, analysis, synthesis, delivery and display of performance measures and other information about the work and accomplishments of a court as an organization.

Alignment of Measures with Mission

Good measures are not chosen haphazardly; they are not indicators of everything. People must commit to the purpose of a performance measure, the key outcome it indicates, not just the metric. The ideal is strategic alignment – providing court managers with performance information that is explicitly linked to mission and goals. The real value of a performance measure is not in the measure itself but rather in the question it forces you to ask about the court’s programs and services.

The requirement of a linkage of performance measures to a court’s mission is deceptively simple. Figuratively and literally, performance does not count unless it is related to the things that really matter -- a limited number of broad performance categories, key success factors, critical to the success of a court. Such key success factors have been referred to as major performance areas, broad performance areas, perspectives, domains, performance criteria, key results factors, and key outcomes. Whatever they are called, they are aligned with a court’s core performance measures and together with them form the “framework” of a court’s accountability to the public and other stakeholders.

In his practical introductory text, The Basics of Performance Measurement (Productivity Press, 1997), Jerry Harbor suggests that the completion of the statement, "I need performance-related information in order to..." will help in identifying the key success factors for which to collect performance information. What is the mission of the court? What are its programs and services intended to achieve? What are the things that you are committed to accomplishing? Effective performance measures are based on the answers to these fundamental questions.

Here are 16 examples of key success factors that can be identified for courts and court systems:

1. Access to Justice
2. Expedition and Timeliness
3. Fairness, Equality and Integrity
4. Independence and Accountability
5. Public Trust and Confidence
6. Finance
7. Client-customer Satisfaction
8. Internal Processes
9. Innovation and Learning
10. Leadership
11. Strategic Planning
12. Customer and market
13. Information and Analysis
14. Process Management
15. Human Resources
16. Business Results

These 16 examples have been associated with three “frameworks” that attempt to bring together values, purpose, mission, and broad strategy. The first five are the major court performance areas defined in the Court Performance Standards, with which most court managers are familiar. They represent outcomes the public wants from the courts. Citizens want ready access to the justice delivered by the courts; they want that access to be safe, relatively convenient, and affordable. Once they have gained access, they want their business with the courts dealt with expeditiously and fairly, according to the facts and according to established rules. They want their disputes to get individual attention and to be dealt with fairly. And they want their courts to behave independently of other branches of government and other agencies to assure that decisions and actions are based solely on legally relevant factors. Ultimately, they seek trust and confidence in the courts. The five performance areas identify these civic ideals.

Examples 6 through 9 above are the four "perspectives" of the Balanced Scorecard performance management system, and 10 through 16 are the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award Program criteria. For example, the customer perspective of the Balanced Scorecard framework (How do customers see us?) focuses on the concerns of the users of the court including timeliness, quality, performance and service, and cost. Example 9, the innovation and learning perspective (Can we continue to improve and create value?), focuses on a court's ability to innovate, improve and learn. The Fourth District Court in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which has used the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award Program criteria as part of its improvement efforts, defines leadership (Example 10) as the manner in which the court's senior leaders address values, direction and performance expectations, as well as their focus on customers, stakeholders, empowerment, innovation and learning.

Of course, none of these 16 examples are necessarily models for your court. Few would take issue with the need for a court to formulate its own unique guiding ideas -- the values, purpose, and vision of its future that define its organizational "character.” Just as a court's fundamental values cannot be pulled off-the-shelf, a court's unique key success factors, which are tied to its organizational character, must be tailored by the court. At their best, the examples can give you a good starting point for identifying where you might begin to look for performance measures and how to group and balance them after you have identified them. The five performance areas of the Court Performance Standards -- which are aligned with guiding principles, goals and performance measures -- are the most well-articulated and are perhaps the best model. They were developed for state courts by court experts and practitioners and have the endorsement of the courts community. Reliance on the perspectives of the Balanced Scorecard system and the Baldridge criteria may add the cachet that private sector innovations seem to hold for courts.

Comprehensive System of Indicators

Despite the growing commitment to performance measurement among courts and a court systems in all parts of the world, it is still rare to find examples of comprehensive system of performance measures developed in line with the principles of good practice discussed in here and in other posts. The PAF is an approach toward such a comprehensive system. The Policing Performance Assessment Framework in Engand and Wales, described by the Vera Institute , is an example outside of the courts.
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