Counties across the country are in a continuous process of performance improvement. From running local health departments to overseeing elections, counties deliver a variety of services and represent an industry of half a trillion dollars in annual operations.1 Performance metrics have become especially important for counties in face of rising state and federal mandates, decreasing funding shared by states with counties and multiplying state limitations on counties’ ability to raise revenue. Evaluating programs can help streamline existing processes, encourage collaboration across departments and better manage limited resources. Tracking performance also allows residents to see the results of ongoing county efforts, as well as increase transparency, accountability and, ultimately, trust in county leadership.

This report explores a variety of ways in which counties are tracking performance and using performance metrics to improve services for residents. Based on information collected through a combination of focus groups, live polls and interviews with county officials, this analysis showcases how counties around the country measure their performance, their successes and the challenges they face in the process. The report includes four case studies — Prince George’s County (Md.), Catawba County (N.C.), Douglas County (Nev.) and McHenry County (Ill.) — that feature specific county performance evaluation processes in detail. These case studies are just a few examples of how counties across the nation conduct their performance measurement processes and increase the efficiency and impact of their services.

Performance Evaluation – Metrics and Measures

Performance tracking involves both metrics and measures. Performance metrics help an organization evaluate compliance, process effectiveness and whether set objectives have been achieved.2 An essential characteristic of performance metrics is the evaluation against a baseline. The Federal Chief Information Officers Council (CIO Council) differentiates between compliance and process metrics.3 While compliance metrics are about evaluating progress of current work against set goals, process metrics consider business processes and the results of changing business practices. Most often, organizations keep track of workload measures, which are simply output tracking. While workload measures are useful in showing workload volume and resource utilization, they are not metrics, as they do not require a measurement baseline. 

The Performance Evaluation Process in Counties

No two counties are the same, resulting in a variety of methods to evaluate performance. Based on their specific situations, each county government selects the focus of their performance evaluations, the way they will organize their performance tracking process and the way they will use the evaluation results. Despite these differences, the goal of evaluating performance remains the same: improve outcomes and increase efficiency within the county – two increasingly difficult, yet necessary, objectives for counties operating in an environment of fiscal constraints.

84% of respondents mentioned that their county tracks performance.

Most counties have some type of formal performance evaluation. According to the 2017 NACo live polls and survey of appointed and elected county officials (referred to as the “NACo survey” in this report), 84 percent of respondents mentioned that their county tracks performance.4 Most often, counties evaluate financial performance, as nearly half (47 percent) of respondents indicated.5 Resident satisfaction and county employee engagement are next on the list. Additionally, nearly one quarter of respondents mentioned that their county also tracks socioeconomic trends across the entire county jurisdiction. The focus of the performance evaluation process depends on the county’s top priorities, and it is often not singular since, for example, strong financial performance may lead to increased resident satisfaction.

Every county has its own set of priorities which guide its performance evaluation process. Most often, counties use the results of the performance evaluation to identify priorities for future budgeting (See Figure 1). Identifying demand for county services is another purpose of performance tracking, which helps counties better allocate resources and plan for future growth. Using performance metrics to inform county residents (20 percent) contributes to an environment of increased transparency and accountability. Performance metrics, when they are similar across counties, may be used for benchmarking, which can give another measurement baseline and help counties find areas where they can cooperate on issues.

Figure 1: Why Counties Track Performance