Measuring What Really Matters in Hard Times

State courts are facing severe budget cuts in the current economic crisis. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 44 states are facing shortfalls in their FY 2009 and/or FY 2010 budgets. By most accounts, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Some of my more optimistic colleagues (who -- I might add -- are fortunate enough to have solid jobs) subscribe to the “necessity is the mother of invention” school of thought on the deepening recession. They have a point.

While they do not wish ill toward their court friends on the receiving end of drastic budget cuts, they see a bright spot in the months and years ahead. They welcome the sense of urgency. They're hoping it will give birth to clarity of focus and innovation.

They see courts and state court systems today forced to confront issues and questions that they believe should be asked all the time, not just now: What are our fundamental obligations? What is expected of us? Which programs and services are mandated and which are not? What should we stop, continue and start? On what basis?

My sense is that as local courts and state court systems deal with budgets that are hemorrhaging, the internal and external scrutiny of courts will intensify and focus on what matters most. In good times, the operative question is “Are you doing things right?” In other words, are the programs or services doing what they are designed to do?

In bad times, the question shifts more toward fundamental worth and merit, toward the impacts of programs and services, to return-on-investments, and to cost-benefit: “Are you doing the right things?” In other words, is the program or service you are providing meeting the court’s fundamental governmental obligations. Are they contributing to a positive change in the status or condition of people they are designed to serve? If not, then you need to give up the resources or move them to programs and services that have positive impacts.

For court performance measurement and management this means “counting what counts,” i.e., a preference for outcome measures over input and output measures. (See “A Preference for Outcome Measures,” Made2Measure, September 28, 2005).

Jack Roedema, court administrator of the 17th Circuit Court in Kent County, Michigan, believes that he has witnessed first-hand this shift toward a preference for outcome measures. I know that he and Chief Judge Paul Sullivan have done a masterful job in the past using performance data to develop, maintain and strengthen the court’s relationship with county officials who fund the court. The court uses close to 100 performance measures on a regular basis.

In a recent email, Mr. Roedema said that he is seeing county officials looking at the court from a different perspective than they did in the past. They still greatly appreciate assurances backed by solid data showing that the court programs and services are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but they are beginning to ask “so what.” With emphasis on mandated versus non-mandated services and significant budget restraints in his county, he says that it “seems like in our court we need to go a step further with [performance measurement].” In the area of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), he is beginning to report the results of a “sort of cost-benefit analysis.” If as a result of mediated settlements the ADR program prevents 60 cases from reaching a judge, then “we are saving about 120 hours of judicial time,” Roedema said.

This type of information now seems to strike more of a chord with the county officials, Mr. Roedema believes. “Of course, you can't really get to the ‘so what’ information unless you have good performance measures in place,” he said.

I told him that I agreed that he was heading in the right direction by looking at cost and time savings of programs and services, but I recommended that he set his sights higher toward even more outcome-oriented performance measures. For example, I suggested that he think of the purpose of juvenile diversion, another program he cited, not only in terms of savings in court resources, but also in terms of community safety, welfare and protection. How do you measure success in that area? Recidivism? Payment of restitution? Direct contributions to the community by work in lieu of monetary penalties? What is the court’s fundamental obligation in these programs?

If funders are made aware by trustworthy performance data that a program or service not only runs the way it was designed, but also contributes significantly to the protection and well-being of the community, they are much less likely to give it the ax. For courts and state court systems, counting what counts and measuring what really matters may be a sound strategy not only for accountability, but also for survival.

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