5 Essential Questions to Write a Great Performance Measure



What are Performance Measures and why are we hearing about them in transportation planning these days?

Strafford Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), along with transportation planning agencies across the country, has been mandated by the federal government to start implementing “Performance Based Planning” processes in our transportation planning. Ok! Great; now what does that mean?

It means that by 2018 we are required to have measurable targets for a range of goals, and these targets must be included in our Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

Transportation planners talk about balanced scorecards, indicators, targets, strategies, metrics, TIPs, TYPs, LRTPs, MOVES, SADES, modal integration, secondary metrics, buffers…. It’s a secret “planner’s language” and will make your head SPIN!

So let’s break it down. What is a performance measure? Seems kind of obvious, right? Something that measures how well you are doing? In simple terms: “A Performance Measure is the monitoring of ongoing progress toward pre-established goals.”[i]

But how do you measure, for instance, how to make a stretch of road safer? What can tell us how beneficial a bus route is to the people who live along that route? And why is this information needed or useful?  Why do we need to measure performance?

Performance-based planning allows us to look at data, past and present, and create measures that tell us how we are doing. It gives us measurable targets that enable us to make more-informed decisions and to adjust our expectations and priorities. If we spend $2million on safety improvements at a dangerous intersection, for example, but the same number of fatalities still occur after that investment, what did we do wrong?

In our process of trying to figure out meaningful measurements for our region, we asked these 5 major questions to create a successful measure.[ii] Here they are!

  1. Where do we want to go?

First, we look at a broad goal or issue area. Let’s use safety for this example. We need to narrow it down to something tangible. Let’s pick reducing the number of fatalities on road X. Safety is a complicated area because a lot of issues arise from operator behavior which we do not have the power to affect, so in thinking about measurement we need to be very clear about our limitations. What are the things we CAN change? There is little point in setting a goal for ourselves that is outside the realm of our control.

  1. How can we get there?

Once we’ve chosen our goal, in this case reducing the number of fatalities on road X, we need to start thinking about data, trends, targets, and strategies. Is there data available that we can measure from? How has this issue changed over time? Infrastructure, signage, visibility, and traffic-calming are strategies that are somewhat in our control, so what is a realistic and achievable target?

  1. What will it take?

Ok! We’ve got a target. Now, what do we have to do to hit it? This is where programming and planning come in. We can prioritize programs that will help us reach our target. We have context in which to make decisions. When we are communicating to our boards and Department of Transportation (DOT), we can show how we will monitor our goals and how we plan to reach them. This is pretty helpful!

  1. How did we do?

Now it’s time to put this into practice; to see our strategies at work and track their effectiveness. Depending on the measure, this can be a lengthy process. Some reporting may happen only every year or every two years or five. So, we have to be patient. Once the reports and data come in, we can really see how well our strategies worked. Did they make a difference? Did we reach our goal? Most important, did our plans reduce the number of fatalities on road X?

  1. What do we need to change?

The end of this loop or iterative course of creating a performance measure is looking back to the beginning, looking back at our goal and evaluating our processes and decision making and figuring out ways we can change or do better. If we have met our goal, perhaps we can set an even higher one. If we have not met our goal, we can look at what did not work and make adjustments.

The beauty of performance-based planning is that it allows money, energy, and time to be spent effectively, addressing real problems, and it allows for a much more sensitive and responsive planning process. Rather than guess how something has worked, we can look at the data and the objective, and if it is clear that something is not reaching its target, we can go back to the drawing board!

Strafford MPO is currently working on a collaborative project with the three other MPOs in New Hampshire along with DOT to create these targets and some supplemental regional measures for New Hampshire. The project is funded by the Federal Highway Administration Strategic Highway Research Program (FHWA SHRP2); we will provide updates and further details on our process here on the blog and on social media. Check out our website for further details! http://strafford.org/transportation/perfmeasures.php

[i] Bortniak, John, “How to Write Great Performance Measures,” NOAA, 2012, https://www.lib.noaa.gov/about/news/PerformanceMeasures101Tutorial.pdf.

[ii] “Performance-Based Planning and Programming Guidebook,” FHWA, iv, 2013.