When Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took office in December 2010, one of her goals was to regain the trust of county residents, many of whom had lost their faith in county government. Upon taking office, Preckwinkle adopted the following vision statement for Cook County:
“Accountable to its citizens, Cook County will be transformed into the best-run county in the country – a County led by its Board President with an unwavering commitment to open, honest and efficient government that provides higher quality services at lower costs.”
No small task for the second most populous county in the United States, particularly one that had been linked to dubious spending practices for many years.
To help achieve this goal, Cook County developed the STAR initiative, an acronym that stands for “Set Targets – Achieve Results.” STAR, a cooperative program involving the County Board, agencies, employee unions, and residents, requires every office within the County to set goals, and to report on their progress with specific data.
“Unfortunately having to cut budgets was, in a lot of cases, like doing surgery in the dark – we didn’t always know the detail of the impact of what our cuts would mean.”
Performance-based budgeting is not a new concept. What makes this initiative unique is that it relies upon collaborative input from citizens and government to help prioritize projects and make educated decisions about allocating resources and cutting costs.
The first STAR report, issued on July 1, 2011, covers the performance period December 1, 2010 to May 31, 2011. It includes 645 metrics, and sets forth goals for all County agencies: Finance & Administration; Healthcare; Public Safety; Property & Taxation; and Economic Development.
A sampling of improvements made within the County during the first few months of the program include:
- Enhanced fiscal responsibility – The Department of Budget and Management Services created a Financial Data Handbook and trained managers to access real-time financial reports. Managers are now expected to run reports each month and report potential budget overruns to the Budget Department and President’s Office.
- Increased transparency and accountability – In response to a lack of full awareness of the cost of worker’s compensation by department managers, the Department of Risk Management now issues a quarterly report to help managers understand worker’s compensation and manage staff more effectively.
- Improved Services – The Highways Maintenance Division is now setting targets for work to be completed and tracking individual units of work. Ongoing data collection and analysis will help managers make good decisions and provide benchmarks for future years.
Source: Cook County Performance Summary, dated July 1, 2011
Reports will be issued every three months. In the coming months, STAR data will “set the context” for the 2012 budget, meaning it will inform the budget by providing data that ties performance to budgeting.
What makes this initiative unique is that it relies upon collaborative input from citizens and government to help prioritize projects and make educated decisions about allocating resources and cutting costs.
When the Board President has to make tough decisions on how to allocate resources, she will be using this data to help inform her in this process, according to Neil Khare, Director of Policy in the Office of the County Board President.
“When we came into office on December 6, 2010, we were five days into the start of our 2010 fiscal year,” he says. “We moved as fast as we could to create and recommend a fiscally responsible budget – a budget that closed a $487 million gap (on a $3 billion budget).
Unfortunately having to cut budgets was, in a lot of cases, like doing surgery in the dark – we didn’t always know the detail of the impact of what our cuts would mean. We had to rely on the spotty data that we did have – and thankfully, it ended up working okay. However, it’s not the way we want to approach our budgeting process.”
Citizen involvement is integral to the success of the STAR initiative, which aims to “create a culture of transparency and continuous improvement within Cook County.”
The County has launched “an aggressive communications strategy that aims to inform and engage residents on the program itself along with what the data is telling us,” says Khare.
Because the County isn’t like other municipalities in that it does not always touch the day-to-day lives of every resident, establishing regular channels of communication is one of the first steps. “We aren’t responsible for keeping the large majority of the streets clean and safe, picking up garbage, or beautifying communities,” says Khare, “but we do provide vital services, including health care and justice for the region.” And so the County has begun its outreach by targeting those groups that are impacted by the most County services.
Khare says that the County has received some great public feedback, and hopes that residents will become increasingly involved in the process. The greatest challenge: presenting the data in a clear, meaningful format for residents.
“I think as we move forward and have more data to show – along with trends – we can be more creative in the way we present it to constituents. This could be as simple as a better citizens’ summary, or more complex as a forum to outline citizens’ priorities.
Ultimately, performance management will have a significant tie to the budget; the STAR initiative provides an opportunity to use our commitment to budget transparency to push performance management out to constituents even more.”