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Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Shawn Vestal: Spokane taking measured approach to its performance

Spokane’s city government is measuring itself with a vengeance.

How fast do crews arrive at fires? How many water lines have broken? How many chronically homeless people had been placed into housing? How many books have been checked out from the libraries?

This is an excellent development, and it is conjoined with another one: a budget process packed with information. I’d hazard a guess that never in the city’s history have citizens had access to so much information and assessment about their local government.

This measurement-based approach – akin to the benchmarking mania in the business world and also to some expensive and misbegotten ideas in the realm of education – is well-suited to city government. How many cops are on the street? How many crimes are being reported? How long does it take to get a permit?

It’s a work in progress, and the administration sees it as improvable. Scott Simmons, who was hired as the city’s strategic business analyst in June, said the administration plans to press for better measurements – yardsticks that are “more robust” and harder-hitting, as a way for citizens to truly gauge how well the city is working. Simmons came to the city from a similar job overseeing key performance indicators for Ecova, which helps companies become more sustainable and energy-efficient.

“If I look at my private experience,” he said, “the city’s done a pretty darn good job.”

Last week, the city released its first quarterly report on 45 performance measures. That effort grows out of the new budgeting process at City Hall. Mayor David Condon’s “program budgets” have been detailed, expansive accountings of city operations and goals, department-by-department. Most citizens will never look at one, but they should. The budgets tell the story of what the city’s government does, where it puts its resources and what the goals are.

This was not invented here, of course. Simmons and city spokesman Brian Coddington said Condon was impressed by similar efforts in other cities, such as Louisville, Ky. It’s been a general trend in both business and government, and the use of careful tracking of crime reports has been the cornerstone of policing efforts in other cities. Still, the impetus to do it here came from the top.

“He likes data,” Simmons said of Condon. “He had an interest in taking what these other municipalities are doing and asking what can we do in Spokane to advance them.”

There are potential pitfalls. Statistics are not pure and objective: The way things are measured affects the results. A politician can select the good stuff and use it to polish their resume for re-election. If you ever watched “The Wire,” you saw a fictionalized version of real corruption that could be associated with a crime-data approach: a more or less constant political pressure to cook the books to sell a vision of declining crime. It’s important for people to be able to trust the data and the motives of the people gathering it.

The city definitely bright-sided its announcement of the report earlier this month: A news release noted a handful of the most positive measures in the report, and nothing else. For example, the release noted decreases in violent crime, burglaries and auto thefts, and was silent on the continued increase in property crimes and garage burglaries.

Even so, this glass is way more than half full. For one thing, the report itself included measures that were both positive and negative.

“There are a lot of areas where we are behind goals,” Simmons said.

It also included some odd, interesting nuggets. For example, the city has started paying as many bills as possible with credit cards to take advantage of cash-back provisions. It ain’t a huge deal, but it’s interesting – and it saved around $7,000 last quarter.

You should check out the report yourself at beta.spokanecity.org/blog. But here are a few of the figures that caught my eye:

• Crime remains a mixed bag, and citizens should scrutinize the statistics – and the city’s public pronouncements about them – on crime very carefully, given the tendency to try and emphasize only the areas of improvement. Garage burglaries are up 28 percent over last year’s third quarter and have been trending upward all year long. Property crimes overall, perhaps our single biggest public safety sore spot, continue to rise and have been higher than last year in every quarter so far this year.

• Some bright spots: After two quarters of increases, car thefts came down from last year by 14 percent. Violent crime was down (14 percent), as were home burglaries (7 percent).

• Caseloads for city public defenders have risen dramatically this year. That’s affected by a few factors, Simmons said, including the raising of the threshold for felony theft, which leaves more cases in municipal court.

• The time it takes to go through the city permitting process has been cut by more than half since the first quarter of 2012; it now averages 35 days.

• Public communications efforts, like the My Spokane initiative, receive high marks from users.

Not every measure seems important or informative. And some of them may tell us less than they appear to, like the measurement of fire department responsiveness. The report shows that the city is meeting its goals on three measures of response times. But that’s a case where the goals themselves are arguable; national fire safety groups recommend faster responses, though many cities do not meet these ideals.

So, add a few grains of salt, perhaps. But measure for measure, this abundance of assessment is a positive step.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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