I Have to Ask: Dashboard Confession

Posted on June 3, 2019

Brian Bickers

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Brian Bickers, Management Analyst at Arlington County, VA, writes about three things to consider when creating a dashboard.

Thinking about performance dashboards can be overwhelming. For one thing, what is a performance dashboard? We are still in the infancy of the internet, and we don’t have a strict definition for the term yet. Generally, though, we can think of a performance dashboard as an interactive website where the general public can access data on how well a city is doing.

This is a broad explanation that covers a lot of grey area, and there are literally hundreds of ideas on how to best implement a dashboard. Like a lot of local government staff members, I have been… borrowing ideas from other municipalities (stealing seems like a strong word). From what I have learned, developing a performance dashboard is a lot like shopping for a new car.  It is easy to get distracted by all the bells and whistles you can add on, but the critical question is “will my car/dashboard get me to where I need to go.” Here are three of the most important things to make sure your performance dashboard runs optimally.

Meaningful and Sustainable Performance Measures

Example: San Mateo County, CA

I know it is a little obvious, but to have a good performance dashboard, you need to have good performance measures. These measures should align with the program, department, and government missions. Beyond that, these measures need to be sustainable.  A brainstormed measure might feel important, but if calculating the measure causes a whole Department to drop all other work for a week, it might be tough to implement annually. That annual assessment is vitally important, because it helps you to track how well a municipality is really doing on that measure. Is a low score on a measure a fluke, or is it caused by a change in the way community members are accessing city services?  Without years worth of data, it is hard to tell. If you explore San Mateo County’s performance dashboard, you will find data that stretches over many years and tells a more complete picture of the work done by the county. This allows residents to analyze not just where the County is now, but also its past and future trajectory.

Clear and Objective Information on Methodology and Results

Example: Polk County, FL

Published in 1954, Darrell Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” is still one of the best selling books on mathematics today. Its central premise – numbers can be stretched and bent to prove any point you want – is a truth that many data wonks struggle with. We are tasked with objectively presenting the data, but how can we do that when any analysis invites in human bias? This is an exceptionally difficult issue in the public sector, where we have a moral obligation to be clear and forthcoming to the people we serve. Trust in government is low right now – but by using performance dashboards we can show how and why we arrived at an analysis. Polk County is doing a great job of being transparent with their methodology on its performance dashboard. For example, the County’s page on Aquatic Species Control goes into deep detail about what is counted in the measure and why.  When everyone understands and trusts how the measure was determined, government staff and community members can work together to take action on the data.

User Driven Experience

Example: City of Olathe, KS

One of the great joys in local government work is the opportunity to work for and with so many community members. Each person is unique, and their experience with the dashboard should be unique as well. The internet allows for interaction with data that just wasn’t possible in the past. A well built dashboard should allow some users to really immerse themselves in the data. At the same time, it should allow other users to zoom ahead to the specific performance measures they are really interested in. The City of Olathe’s performance dashboard is a lot like a Russian nesting doll. When you first arrive on the dashboard, you see an overview on how the city is doing as a whole. Clicking through it will allow you to drill down to different key concepts and specific measures.  Dashboard users are able to tailor their experience to focus on what they find important.

As our use of the internet continues to evolve, so will our performance dashboards.  We are at the dawn of a really exciting era in government transparency and responsiveness. As the technology changes, though, the above three constants will remain. Our measures should be meaningful and trackable across the years. We need to be fully transparent with our community so the residents can make the best decisions. Community interactions with governments ought to be individualized and tailored to reflect exactly what they need.

Beginning a performance dashboard can be a big undertaking, but it does not necessarily require buying a new software platform. Arlington County’s Department of Human Services has been publishing performance management plans as Microsoft Word documents for many years. These plans have informed and improved practices, driving conversations on how to better serve our community members.  At the end of the day, a performance dashboard should be judged by how far it drives a community and government forward. I can’t wait to see where yours takes you.

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