Tracking and Learning From Program Data
Dos and Don’ts for Public and Nonprofit Human Service Agencies
Tracking data and performance is vital to improving programming for public agencies and nonprofit human service organizations. A new report from the Urban Institute, funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides dozens of practical suggestions to help these organizations improve how they compile and use data to get better results.
The report, Dos and Don’ts: Tips for Strengthening Your Performance Management Systems, identifies 63 dos and don’ts in five facets of performance management: collecting and analyzing performance data, using performance findings and presenting and disseminating data.
“Without relevant, timely, and reasonably accurate performance information, program managers will be flying blind,” the report’s authors note. “Performance measurement includes identifying a program’s mission goals or objectives, selecting performance indicators and identifying data collection procedures.”
Suggestions for Managing Data in Five Key Areas
“Having the right data — and the ability to analyze and talk about those data in real time — is critical to helping organizations understand and improve what they are doing,” says Ilene Berman, a senior associate with the Foundation’s Evidence-Based Practice Group. “By engaging in regular performance reflection and improvement conversations, organizations can position effective programs for greater scale to improve outcomes for more young people and families.”
Highlights of the report’s recommendations include:
- Have organizational leaders signal to staff that performance is a top priority.
- Seek input on which measures to track from a range of stakeholders, including program participants.
- Obtain periodic feedback from participants about how well the service is delivered.
- Identify one staff member to lead data tracking and analysis.
- Compare program outcomes broken out by demographic characteristics, including race and ethnicity, to learn how different groups of participants are experiencing the program.
- Compare performance results over time to spot trends.
- Invite program participants to suggest service improvements.
Using Performance Findings
- Use performance data internally to learn and improve.
- Don’t turn performance presentations into a “gotcha” exercise, which may lead staff to fudge data to avoid penalties.
- Recognize team members — through awards or monetary rewards — responsible for strong performance results.
- Clearly define performance indicators to avoid any confusion about what is being measured.
- Don’t hide bad news; instead, identify plans to correct the problem.
- Include stories that explain the meaning and value of the data being shared.
- Develop regular scorecards on program performance and share with staff and public officials.
- Ensure program managers have ready access to up-to-date performance data.
This report is a companion to a previous Urban Institute report, Evaluation Guide for Public Service Program Managers, which provides strategies for public and nonprofit program managers to strengthen their decision making using evaluation information.