One of our very favorite Governing columns that we’ve written over the years was about performance measurement and girls’ soccer. As we watched our daughter play, we noticed we were seeing some of the same performance issues come up as we’d seen in government. One of the chief problems was that of conflicting goals. Coaches said they wanted to develop players and win games, but doing both those things simultaneously was tricky. If you played your best kids all the time, you might win, but you wouldn’t do as much as you could to develop the skills of the bottom half of the team. If you played your weaker players – thus developing them – it was likelier that you’d lose.
We can’t help notice that the Recovery Act is also struggling with a passel of conflicting goals. The area that has been most significantly paralyzed by this problem has been weatherization. The Recovery Act sought to spur economic growth, create jobs and lower energy bills by providing insulation, caulking, weather stripping, etc., to low income families. But the goal was also to make sure that the jobs paid the prevailing wage. Since weatherization work had not been covered by this requirement before, the arduous and detailed task of calculating and setting proper wage rates fell to the Department of Labor, and then the Department of Energy had to help states figure out how to certify that these payroll requirements were met.
Hence the delay. On March 5, California auditor Elaine Howle testified before the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform that when the auditor’s office finished its fieldwork in December, no houses had yet been weatherized in California even though $93 million had been available since the end of July. By February, the Department of Community Services told the audit office that 210 homes had been weatherized. Putting aside the fact that Howle seemed a bit dubious of this number in her testimony, those 210 houses still fell far short of the state goal of weatherizing 1,433 houses per month.
There are lessons to be learned here, and we think one of the primary ones is for government decision-makers to assess early on where worthwhile, but conflicting goals — like getting work done speedily and setting up a complex new payroll structure — may end up causing problems.
We’re going to cover more about the technical side of this issue in a couple of upcoming posts.