Q & A: Outcome vs. Measure vs. Target vs. Standard

Q: Those of who write and speak about court performance measurement rely on their share of jargon -- and it's often confusing. What are the differences among the terms “outcome,” “measure,” “target” and “standard”?

A: Socrates said that the beginning of wisdom is definition. We’ll see.

Outcomes are the benefits or changes for the intended beneficiaries of a court’s programs and services. Outcomes may relate to knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, behavior, condition or status of the program participants or recipients of services. Examples include litigants' satisfaction with a court's courtesy and responsiveness, success of probation, time to case disposition, clarity of orders, integrity of case files, percent of mediation agreements, enforcement of orders, and perceived fairness of proceedings, as well as percent of expected expenditures and percent of revenues received. Outcomes should not be confused with the activities of those who run the court. (See the October 19, 2005, posting, A Logic Model of Performance Inputs, Outputs and Outcomes; and the September 26, 2005, posting, A Preference for Outcome Measures)

A performance measure is a result, generally stated as a number or percent that indicates how a court is performing. The National Center for State Courts’ CourTools are performance measures. For example, Measure 3, Time to Disposition, is the percentage of cases disposed or otherwise resolved within established time frames.

A performance target is a numerical goal or objective a court wants to achieve on a particular measure. For example, a court might set a performance target for the measure of time to disposition to resolve 95% percent of domestic relations cases within six months. Performance targets can be readily set higher or lower based on past performance or as the court’s goals and objectives change.

The term standard has been used in two quite different ways, causing considerable confusion. It is best defined as a special target performance for all courts or all cases that has been recognized and adopted as the norm by some authority like the American Bar Association (ABA), the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), or a state administrative office of the courts. The ABA, for example, has published case processing time standards such as the disposition of 100% of all felony cases within 180 days. A particular court can have various targets of its own that are lower or higher than the standards adopted by external authorities without necessarily rejecting those standards.

The National Center for State Courts’ Trial Court Performance Standards spurred a use of the term standard that has caused more confusion than clarity. This very influential work uses standards as a synonym for strategic goals or, in the words of the Commission on Trial Court Performance Standards, the “guiding principles of performance.” For example, Standard 3.3, Court Decisions and Actions, reads: “Trial courts give individual attention to cases, deciding them without undue disparity among like cases and upon legally relevant factors.” Because of the widespread use of the Trial Court Performance Standards, this unfortunate, and in my view, irregular use of the terms standards as a synonym for strategic goals is likely to persist. (In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to being the former director of the National Center for State Courts’ Trial Court Performance Standards Project, 1987 to 1990, and a major contributor to any confusion in the language of the Standards.)

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