Making the Most of Performance Measures

People must sign on to the purpose of the performance measure, the key results it indicates, not just the metric. Performance measures are derived from the mission and strategic goals of a court and the factors important to its stakeholders. Decisions about what to measure are, to a large extent, collective judgments that reflect the intended use of the performance information (e.g., major reform, public accountability, program improvement or resource allocation) and the needs and desires (e.g., efficiency, equity, quality, or improving the public confidence in the courts) of the court’s stakeholders. Kathryn E. Newcomer, professor and chair in the Department of Public Administration at George Washington University, aptly noted in Using Performance Measurement to Improve Public and Nonprofit Programs (Josses-Bass, 1997), that, ultimately, the performance of programs and organizations is a socially constructed and not an objective reality.

Even when we have identified a performance measure and agreed to its operational definition, we can continue to add significantly to the meaning of a performance measure. We can do this in two ways; first, by describing the measure broadly in terms of ideas and concepts that fit our view of the purpose of the measure and, second, by breaking out (disaggregating) the measure into its parts.

Consider, for example, the measure of time to disposition with which most court managers are familiar. The National Center for State Courts’ CourTools defines this measure as the percentage of cases disposed or otherwise resolved within established timeframes.

Expanding the Meaning of Measures

Time to disposition can be construed strictly as an internal efficiency measure of process output, or broadly conceived as an effectiveness indicator of outcome in terms of the quality of justice delivered (see post of September 28, 2005, A Preference for Outcome Measures). While the broad meaning of this measure is self-evident to any court manager familiar with the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied,” others may view time to disposition merely as an indicator of the “cycle time” of an internal court process that is largely irrelevant to those outside of the court.

Because the expanded meaning of time to disposition may not be self-evident to potential users of the measure, it needs to be made explicit as part of the description and promotion of the measure. Courts should point out that delay causes injustice and hardship, that it is a primary cause of diminished public trust and confidence in the courts. They should reinforce the belief that the courts’ compliance with basic rules of established procedure – especially the rules governing timeliness – can, by itself, ensure justice.

Revealing the Hidden Meaning of Measures

Breakouts (disaggregations) of performance measures reveal useful information otherwise hidden. Common breakouts of time to disposition are case type and location. They identify differences in timeliness of case processing among different case types and court locations. Other less common breakouts may identify inequities among groups – situations where some groups had significantly better outcomes than others. For example, it may be possible to identify breakouts for income level of litigants in some cases, and thereby determine whether a court handles cases more swiftly for affluent litigants. Such a breakout would indicate a court’s equality and fairness and thereby extend the meaning of time to disposition beyond timeliness. While this type of breakout has some currency in the public sector outside of courts, especially in fragile countries where it may be common for justice systems to respond more slowly in cases involving poor people, it has not, to the best of my knowledge, been used in US courts.

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