Public Reviews Of Public Services

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 30, 2009.]

Measuring the performance of government agencies has been a hot topic among government managers over the last several years. Frequently, these performance measurement projects end up using lots of resources, with dozens of different measures and the computer systems necessary to manage all that data. But the odd result is that, with all these measures, what matters to the people who are served by your government is often overlooked.

The same thing was true in medical care, another service area of great personal importance to people. Then the Zagat folks entered the picture. Much like their website for reviews of restaurants and the like, in conjunction with the WellPoint health insurance company, they started a website where patients can rate their physicians.  [See, for example,

Of course, Zagat isn’t the only such service. has been known for, among other things, reader reviews of books.

None of these Internet-based rating services – and there are many – is without criticism. The worry in the Amazon reviews is that they can be gamed for commercial purposes. With Zagat’s application of their review process to physicians, there have been criticisms about the lack of expertise of the reviewers. But both of these services can provide a perspective that the physicians or restaurants or authors or any other service provider couldn’t get in any other way.

Similarly, if the public gets a chance to rate public services, you will be able to learn things about those services that none of the internally generated performance measurement systems alone will give you. 

Where could you use this in government? Well, think about the services you offer, particular those that are used by enough people so that ratings might mean something.

How about ratings of:

  • each of your parks
  • each of the major roads in your area
  • each bus route or other transit service
  • each health clinic
  • each school
  • each library or library branch
  • special events that you run, whether holiday events or educational events

Just like restaurant reviews, which have many dimensions – quality of food, ambience, service, etc. – so too you could have many dimensions in any reviews of public services. Roads, for example, can be measured by the smoothness of the surface (the opposite of potholes), congestion, perceived safety, and clarity of signs.

You don’t even need to think all that hard about these dimensions because you can also let the public suggest the dimensions they want to rate services on.

And, based on the experience of the other reviewing services, there shouldn’t be too much concern about criticism boiling over. While there are the bad, sometimes really awful, reviews, in most cases people have good things to say. And their suggestions for improvements are well meaning. 

Of course, if there is some public service that you offer which garners extremely negative responses from a majority of reviewers, then you probably have a real problem – and it’s better to know about it early, before it becomes an election year issue.

Bottom line: unlike elaborate performance measurement systems, this is just a fairly simple website that can engage your residents and provide you with valuable information, inexpensively.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis