Playing “Gotcha” with Performance Measurement Data

For court performance measurement initiatives to succeed they must marry proven methods of assessments of the health of a court with a disciplined process for improving it. This may have to be a shotgun marriage. Without it – even in the very early stages of development -- the initiatives will fall prey to the “gotcha” game and be used to undermine the effort and to discredit it proponents.

The Gotcha Game

In this political season, we are all familiar with the ploy in which one candidate (or the media) seeks to catch another in a misstep or flub -- no matter how untruthful or inconsequential the accusation might be. The whole point is to discredit, place blame, embarrass, or otherwise put things in the worst possible light. When this “gotcha” game is played with measurement data it can have disastrous effects on court performance initiatives.

For example, relatively straightforward efforts to monitor, analyze, and assess court citizen encounter using a survey such as that for Measure 1, Access and Fairness, of the CourTools, might be characterized by some as an ill-conceived attempt to put judges on a hot-seat and at risk of loss of judicial independence, status and pay. Unfortunately, this may be already happening in Arizona, a state that has done the most to foster the assessment of the court citizen encounter state-wide.

The Negative Context Persists Unless ….

In my last post (Court Intelligence -- A Matter of Survival, Made2Measure, December 11, 2007), I mentioned the work of IBM’s Dean R. Spitzer, author of Transforming Performance Measurement – Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success (New York: American Management Association, 2007). Spitzer asserts that the context of performance measurement – positive or negative – will determine its effectiveness. He’s right, of course.

But I would go further. The context will determine if the effort will even get off the ground! Playing gotcha with performance data will poison the well from which performance management draws its strength.

Spitzer tells us that too many people are accustomed to the negative side of performance measurement, especially its use as a way to make judgments of good and bad, place blame, search for the “guilty” low performers, reward a few and punish the many, instead of a tool for improvement. He gives the example of two ways of gaining weight control. The first is to be forced to stand on a scale and be told that you are overweight. That hurts! The second is to use the scale on a voluntary and self-help basis to achieve weight loss. In the first case it is used to judge and in the second case it is used to provide an incentive, to motivate and to empower. Context matters.

What Are You Going to Replace It With?

Behavioral psychology teaches us that if we want to change people’s way of doing things, it is not sufficient to extinguish unwanted responses. We’ve got to identify and then reinforce the desired behavior. If we don’t, the undesired behavior will persist.

If we don’t like the negative ways people think of using performance data, what uses would we prefer to replace them with? What context would we prefer? See Made2Measure, May 25, 2007, Creating an Environment Receptive to Performance Measurement.

Performance Measurement – Learn to Use It (Quickly) or Lose It

Identifying the right measures – the first requirement of an effective court performance measurement system -- is necessary, but not sufficient. The second requirement, getting the right measures into the hands of the right people, at the right time and in the right way is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient.

Unless the right measures are actually used by the right people in the right way – or at least thought of being used -- the measures will be ignored or, worse, misused for purposes not intended.

Examples of Effective Use

We must know, and be prepared to explain concisely, how court performance data will be used to improve programs and services – even if we have to resort to hypothetical examples, or ones drawn from other courts or other disciplines. How will the baseline performance data on the court citizen encounter, for example, immediately help the court make its courthouses safer, its case processing more efficient, its judges more courteous and respectful, and its counter staff more attentive? What is the context in which performance measurement will be used?

Compelling examples of innovative ways of bringing excellence to the court citizen encounter by effective performance measurement and management must be imprinted in the minds of people before the performance data are put into play in the gotcha game. The positive ground for performance measurement must be captured by actual or intended uses of performance data.

Effective use is what matters most. My fear is that unless we lead with descriptions, examples, anecdotes and stories – and actual results if we have them -- of how performance measurement drives success, the gotcha game will stop many promising efforts in their tracks.

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