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Dashboard Government: The Politics of Measurement

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, November 28 2012

The other week I was informed that the city of Edmonton, Alberta, published an online dashboard of various metrics that it hopes will both educate residents about the city's services, as well as provide a straightforward way by which to assess performance. The dashboard has only just launched, but if you have a minute, take a look.

Edmonton isn't alone in doing this. Indeed, it joins a long list of governments that have taken an interest in tracking their performance. Many public transit authorities — Trimet in Portland comes to mind — have dashboards of one variety or another as do a number of US State governments. Michigan has a quite comprehensive and interesting dashboard, as does Maryland.

As more and more of what governments do — from running buses to fixing potholes to processing paper — is managed by computers, there is an ever increasing capacity to measure, and make public, the results of any given activity. The opportunity to create more accountable systems and governments is real. In addition, as Edward Tufte would say, the information density of a dashboard is both much higher and, frankly, more engaging and understandable, to most residents than say, a long written report.

That said, there is also a real danger that we will come to believe that dashboards will de-politicize government; that simply because we are looking at "raw" data, we have somehow removed ideology from how we govern ourselves. But as I discussed in Lies, Damn Lies and Open Data, nothing could be further from the truth. Dashboards are very political. To be clear, that does not make them bad, or counter productive, it just means that they are political.

For example, a dashboard is interesting because of what it's designed to display and not display. Why show traffic congestion and not greenhouse gas emissions? Every dashboard represents choices. Someone is choosing what matters and, implicitly, what does not matter. Such choices are, in my mind, a good thing. Let leaders state what they want to be accountable for. Maryland's Governor O'Malley is exceedingly clear that his state's dashboards are a way to measure his priorities. Elections are, in theory, supposed to be about contests of ideas and a battle over who is better able to govern. I have no problem with the winner hard-wiring their promises into a dashboard that clearly tracks the progress made towards the goals they themselves define.

That said, there could be a certain degree of conservatism embedded in a dashboard, something that entrenches the values and goals of the first mover. I fear that there may be a risk of measurement lock in - that once a dashboard is established it may prove very difficult to change without appearing soft on an issue. In this regard, the first leader to create a dashboard may be able to hold future leaders accountable on metrics that they do not care about and might not even be good objects on which to focus time and energy.

There is also a real opportunity for gaming any dashboard. Looking around at a number of dashboards it is hard not to notice that many appear to be in a "green" state. For example, six of Edmonton's eight metrics are green or "on target," ten of Governor O'Malley's fifteen targets are "on track" or "delivered" the other five, painted in yellow, are nonetheless "progressing." The obvious incentive that public dashboards create is that they prompt leaders to simply set exceedingly achievable targets. This would make the dashboards safe, irrelevant and uninteresting.

If we are going to end up with government dashboards all over the place — and frankly, I hope we do — dashboard-makers had better do a bunch of things right.

First, provide people with some additional actionable information. One nice thing about the Edmonton dashboard is that it provides readers with links to resources about actions they can take to help affect the results. For example, the part on transit ridership also has links to a one-day-a-week transit "pledge" as well as links to a site where you can buy transit passes online. Similarly, Maryland's dashboard has a "How can I Get Involved" section at the bottom of each metric.

Second, know your goal. I find it interesting to see what gets measured. If Maryland's dashboard focuses on the governor's priorities — a sort of custom report card on his performance — Michigan's is the opposite. Its dashboard seems to measure everything. From health behaviours, to infant mortality rates, to job numbers, to crime, the Michigan dashboard is the closest there is to a generic report card. Both are deeply interesting to me, although I found Maryland's more compelling since, in theory, there was a judgement I could make about someone's performance based on it. With Michigan, it felt a little bit like a dashboard without the steering wheel.

Third, you'd better be clear about the methodology. Maryland's metrics each include sections on "How is this calculated" along with "Are we meeting our goals." Both the selection criteria and the underlying data are deeply political — what gets measured and how has never mattered more. So, to be credible, dashboards better lay it out for others to assess and criticize.

Finally, and most importantly, it all comes back to the data. I look forward to a world where not just the governor has a dashboard, but so too does his opposition. Where not only does the local transit authority share metrics, but where the local community transit riders association has a dashboard as well. I am a believer in the power of competition. So I would love to see competition over the types of dashboards people think should be used to evaluate the entity they are concerned about. In other words, if dashboards are ever going to be seen as credible, the real test will be if a concerned citizen can create their own dashboard, using methodology of their choosing, drawing on open data from the entity they wish to monitor. I have every confidence that there will be ways both good and terrible by which governments and public services will be assessed, but in this competition over how the public should measure success, I suspect metrics people truly care about will rise to the top.

It won't be perfect, and it won't create a utopia, but it will make for interesting politics, and possibly more effective and responsive government.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.