Comparing notes can be dicey when it comes to counties
As the father of three, I have sat through my share of sporting events over the years. My favorite spectator sport, hands down, is cross country. Regardless of whether our team is winning or losing, wandering around a park or a golf course on a crisp autumn day is hard to beat. I also like the simple rules. There are no balks or pass interference calls that are subject to fan interpretation. The first runner to cross the finish line wins. Because course and weather conditions faced by competitors are the same, an “apples to apples” comparison of the resulting times easily can be made.
Unfortunately, most endeavors are not as clear-cut as determining the winner of a foot race. Having just completed the first draft of our county’s 2013 budget, I like to see how other county administrators and executives approached the task. The letter that accompanied Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas’ proposed 2013 budget reminded me of why I like the certainty of cross-country results and how far local governments need to go in using statistical data to make “apples to apples” comparisons with other units of government.
In his letter, Vrakas took the bold and fairly unusual step of comparing his county’s finances with a number of other counties. One of the statistics that caught my eye was an analysis of the number of county employees per 1,000 residents. Waukesha County scored favorably in this dimension relative to Brown, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties. At 3.5 employees per thousand residents, Waukesha County’s total was nearly half of Brown County’s, which stood at 6.4.
There are at least four reasons why it is rare for a local leader to make such comparisons. First, it requires effort. Even though the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of information that is available about counties, for example, it still takes time and initiative to find the figures and do the math. Second, ignorance may be bliss. What if leaders do all of that work and find out that they don’t compare well? Third, even if a figure tends to place your county in a better light than your peers, it can create hard feelings from the leaders of other counties who didn’t fare as well. Finally, it invites those leaders to develop their own measures, which may place your county at the bottom of the statistical heap. None of these reasons provide a good excuse not to make the comparison. I applaud Vrakas for his attempt to integrate some objectivity into a system that tends to shun data in favor of anecdote when it comes to furnishing public services.
The Waukesha County executive did not include our county in his per capita employee comparison. I did the math, however, using 2012 data and came up with a figure of 7.89 employees per 1,000 residents. The exercise was interesting to me in a number of respects:
-- Relevant measure? Is the number of employees per resident a relevant measure? Does a low employee per capita figure necessarily equate to good government or efficiency? It certainly could, but it could also mean that the government provides fewer services. Consider that Walworth County operates a special needs school and nursing home, neither of which is offered by Waukesha County. Excluding these two operations drops our per capita employee figure to 5.47. If this sounds like so much quibbling over a “goal-tending call,” to use my earlier sports analogy, it is and it isn’t. Netting the number of workers who provide services not offered in another county is a necessary step in order to make an “apples to apples” comparison. On the other hand, our 5.47 is still higher than Waukesha’s figure of 3.5. This suggests that we need to look further to determine if there are other valid factors that are causing our figure to be higher or if we can learn something from our neighbor to the north.
-- Economy of scale. Is there an economy of scale in providing government services? The counties chosen by Waukesha, which has a population of nearly 400,000, were considerably larger than our own. To test this theory, I ran the numbers for Dodge County (2011 population of 88,789) and came up with a per capita employee figure of 8.4, which is remarkably close to our own. Given that each county, regardless of population, employs one administrator, one sheriff, one clerk etc., it stands to reason that counties with larger populations may compare more favorably on an employee-per-capita basis. This information may not be very helpful to local leaders, but could be useful to state officials. Redrawing county lines that were established during horse and buggy days would undoubtedly step on a few toes but may be necessary to lower taxes in our digital age.
-- Apples to apples. The typical response of many government officials is that we are doing just fine, thank you, and that one can never make an apples to apples comparison with the other counties. This line of thinking tends to discount benchmarking and pre-empts any attempt to learn from both the good and bad practices of other counties.
Organizations of local governments, like the Wisconsin Counties Association, are in a great position to develop statistics to allow their members to benchmark their performances against their peers. The WCA’s addition to its staff of an analyst to develop this kind of data was one important reason why I recommended to our board that we rejoin the organization next year. We will keep a close watch on the WCA’s performance next year as we emphasize “benchmarking” in our own organization.