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Continued: Steve Brandt/Dateline Minneapolis: Measuring how well city does its job

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 10, 2008 - 6:41 AM

If you sat in on a Results Minneapolis performance review a few weeks ago, you'd have learned that:

• Annual police calls to the city's top 15 problem grocery stores are down from 303 all last year to 76 so far this year.

• The average number of days it takes to process new liquor licenses is down from 68 last year to 43.

• The number of children with lead poisoning is down from 145 in 2007 to 56 so far this year.

All those measurements and plenty more were in a statistical profile presented by the city's regulatory services department to show how it is meeting its goals. Top department leaders were quizzed on the measures by a panel of seven city leaders.

Now Results Minneapolis is attracting some outside attention. Built from the groundbreaking practice launched in Baltimore of using stats to track a department's performance, it's been operating here in its present form since mid-2006.

St. Paul officials have been dispatched to observe what Minneapolis does. Hennepin County will do the same. Minneapolis Public Schools officials have been invited.

"These reviews are as vigorous as anything I've seen in the private sector," said Frank Parisi, a former Star Tribune executive who's now the city's strategic partnerships director. He wants to bring regional chamber-of-commerce types in to watch.

Idea took off with Bosacker

Like many public officials around the nation, Mayor R.T. Rybak was impressed by Baltimore's use of statistics. Minneapolis used the concept to look at towing practices in 2003 and made some changes.

But Results Minneapolis didn't take off until Rybak hired Steven Bosacker, now city coordinator. The city already had five-year budget plans, and departments also had five-year plans. But measuring progress was spotty.

When Rocco Forte became head of regulatory services in 2004, "I couldn't give you a measurement for anything," he said.

Bosacker led a similar process under Gov. Jesse Ventura. But that had a different timetable: State government focuses more on long-term goals that take years to show up. Bosacker was eager to measure city government because it delivers fairly tangible services, such as responding to animal complaints or demolishing unsafe or nuisance housing.

Bosacker wanted to tie data to department plans, which in turn were to reflect city goals. "Unless you are doing something active with that data and those plans, like any good plan they can sit on a shelf," Bosacker said. He hired aide Jay Stroebel and set out to create a different environment from Baltimore.

"Baltimore uses a gotcha system," he said. But Bosacker wanted to gain the trust of managers that data used in the right way could help them do their jobs. "It wasn't about trying to embarrass them but about trying to figure out how things might change to make better progress."

But what do numbers mean?

The trick, of course, is to be sure that data really measures what's intended. For example, look back at the examples at the top of this column. Did the number of police calls to problem groceries fall because they behaved better? Actually, one reason the numbers are down was because some of the city's worst 15 closed.

Or look at the number of days to process liquor licenses. Is it fair to compare year-end numbers with year-to-date numbers? Would it be better to compare this point with the same point a year earlier? That's especially true for measures of activity that may not be spaced evenly throughout the calendar, such as dog bites.

Or consider the number of cases of lead-poisoned children. First, we presume the chart is for new cases, not cumulative. Is the number of lead cases down because the number of affected children has dropped, or did funding for finding them get cut? For an outsider, the data can lead to lots more questions.

Bosacker concedes that the trick is making sure the right measures are used, something that's a process of refinement.

Results Minneapolis sessions are open to the public in room 132 of City Hall on most Tuesdays at 8:15 p.m. To check the upcoming schedule, search for the Results Minneapolis section of the city's website.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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