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Creating a Functional Performance Dashboard in 8 Steps

November 16, 2015  by  Tracy Burrows
Category:  Government Performance Consortium

Creating a Functional Performance Dashboard in 8 Steps

This summer, the Government Performance Consortium hosted six intrepid Government Data Change Agent interns for the cities of Airway Heights, Anacortes, Kent, Issaquah, Renton, and Tukwila.

Their charge was to create a viable local government performance dashboard in eight weeks, working 12-15 hours a week. A performance dashboard provides an at-a-glance view of key organizational performance indicators. Like an automobile dashboard, it allows the viewer to monitor important performance data in a highly readable visual display.

Watching the Data Change Agent interns work their magic this summer helped us better understand the process of building a performance dashboard. While the visual tool is the end product, the foundational work is all about clarifying your goals and connecting them to your metrics and data. It may seem daunting at first, but by following the steps below, you too can create a helpful, visual management tool for your department or jurisdiction.

Our roadmap to creating a dashboard is intended to get you started. If your jurisdiction hasn’t been systematically collecting performance data, start small. Your first dashboard could be as simple as an internal management tool that displays expenditures against your annual budget to show at a glance whether your agency is staying within budget.  Start with what you have, and expand from there.

Step 1: Identify the Framework for the Dashboard

Many people dive into performance dashboard projects simply because they look cool and seem innovative. The goal is to transform raw numbers into a compelling story that drives performance decisions. A dashboard may be visually interesting, but if it does not have relevance to your organizational goals or operational strategies, then it is nothing more than a pretty picture.

To kick off your dashboard project, sit down with your management team and ask yourselves, what are the primary goals of your organization or department? What story is your dashboard going to tell? How will the dashboard be used? Will it be available to all staff or just management? Will it be made public so that citizens can track your success? How will the data be maintained?

Ideally, the data displayed in the dashboard will make agency performance more transparent to the public and help drive decisions that will improve agency performance.

Possible guidance sources for the framework:

  • Agency Strategic Plan
  • Council or Commission Goals
  • Department Goals

Here is an example of a community’s parks and recreation goal that could form the basis for a dashboard related to the effectiveness of recreation programming:



Likewise, progress toward a community’s infrastructure goal could be monitored through an infrastructure dashboard:

Infrastructure Goal: To Provide well-maintained infrastructure that meets the functional needs of the community at optimum life-cycle costs.


Tip: Start with a narrow scope that can be broadened to encompass all the performance aspects of your local government.


Step 2: Identify Key Strategies that Achieve Agency Goals

Your dashboard is going to visually show whether your agency is making progress toward its goal. But to do this effectively, you’ll need to clearly identify what your agency is trying to accomplish and  the steps that will get you there.

Use a logic model to capture the elements of the programs you want to measure.

  • Inputs are the resources you are spending on the program.
  • Activities (or outputs) are the things you are doing that make progress to the goal.
  • Outcomes are the goals you are trying to reach.

Often you will find that there are many factors outside of local government that influence outcomes. That’s okay. As you measure performance over time, you’ll get a better idea of how and whether your local government efforts impact outcomes. Ideally, the measures will help you develop new strategies that are more effective in helping to achieve outcomes. That’s called progress!

So here we’re translating our parks and recreation goal into a very simple logic model that captures the basic elements or strategies of community fitness center programs:


And here’s the simple logic model for a single aspect of the infrastructure goal – filling potholes:


The Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide is an excellent resource for more information about logic models and how to use them to develop performance measures.

Tip: While this blog presents this process as consecutive steps , the development of a dashboard is an iterative process. For example, the data that you currently collect will likely influence your initial choice of measures. The choice of a dashboard platform may influence the measures that you choose to visualize.


Step 3: Identify Your Performance Measures

The next step is to define the performance measures that track the program inputs, activities, and outcomes that you want to evaluate. There may be multiple performance measures that relate to a single activity. Choose the measures that most accurately relate to the goals that the program is trying to achieve.

Following our first example of tracking the performance of community fitness centers, below are sample measures that correlate to the defined inputs, activities, and outcomes:


Here are examples of measures that go along with the infrastructure goal of filling potholes:


For more information on establishing relevant performance measures, see this Guide for Developing Relevant Key Performance Indicators for Public Sector Reporting by the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia.


 Step 4: Conduct a Data Inventory

Your dashboard is going to visually display data related to the programs and outcomes you want to measure. But let’s be real: you probably won’t have all the data that you’d like to have. Start with the data that you already collect regularly or can obtain from other sources, such as the county or state. You’ll be surprised with how much you have. Focus on the most important data and narrow the scope of your project to something that is achievable. You can always expand the project later. If you find that you do not currently collect key data, set up a system to collect it so that it can be included in the next iteration of the dashboard.

Steve Gorcester, Executive Director of the Washington Transportation Improvement Board, has developed this helpful recipe for a data readiness assessment:

  1. What data do we need?
  2. What data do we have?
  3. Where is the needed data located?
  4. What format is the needed data in?
  5. What needed data is missing?
  6. Do we need any data collection improvements?

Here’s a simple example of a data inventory for community fitness programs. The data reflects both activities (# of participants in classrooms) and outcomes (% of population reporting fair or poor health). In this example, this data is going to have to be manually exported into Excel to populate the dashboard. This will mean additional staff resources to ensure the dashboard is regularly updated.


Goal: Enhance Health of the Community
Subgoal: Improve Participation in Fitness Programs

Measure Data Source Frequency Data Status
Membership sales and renewals Recreation system Monthly Manual export to excel
# of participants in classes Recreation system Monthly Manual export to excel
Geographic distribution of participants Recreation system Monthly Manual export to excel, display in free mapping application
Satisfaction with facilities and classes Need survey data Quarterly Not available
% of population that is physically active Public Health Annually Available
% of population reporting poor or fair health Public Health Annually Available

A lot of local government data resides in proprietary system software that can produce reports, but not the customized visuals you want. That’s where the dashboard comes in.


Here’s a data inventory for performance on filling potholes. The workload data that is available will tell us how efficient we are at filling potholes. Notice that most of this data has an automated connection from the city’s work order management database to the dashboard. Creating this automated connection depends on some programming expertise.


Goal: Maintain Infrastructure Efficiently
Subgoal: Maintain Streets Efficiently

Measure Data Source Frequency Data Status
# of pothole work orders Work flow system Real time Directly connected to SQL database
Average hours to complete work order Work flow system Real time Directly connected to SQL database
Scheduled vs. unscheduled work Work flow system Real time Directly connected to SQL database
Budget vs. Expenditure Work flow system Real time Directly connected to SQL database
# of times same pothole is repaired in a year Not currently tracked Annually Not available
Pavement Condition Index Survey Annually Manual entry to dashboard

Automation is ideal. Depending on your platform, the data may have to be exported from one system and imported into the dashboard program.


Step 5: Choose a platform for your Dashboard

To this point, the steps in the process should look familiar to any agency that has been tracking performance measures. The goal of the dashboard is to make the data come alive. The best data is meaningless unless everyday decision-makers can understand and interact with it.

Many local governments are choosing to invest in dashboard software that is specifically designed to turn raw data into visually appealing graphs, charts, and maps for display on a local agency website. These products may allow you to create compelling visuals and simplify the connections to data in existing databases.

However, the costs of such software and associated technical assistance can be prohibitive for smaller jurisdictions. If you have someone on staff who is tech savvy, you may want to experiment with free or low-cost online tools that can help guide the development of a dashboard.

Another option is to start with generating performance visuals using Excel as the platform for your dashboard. It’s a good place to start because it has some powerful graphing tools and your agency probably already has it in-house. Start with a simple dashboard that you can update monthly or quarterly.

Make sure the type and size of dashboard you choose fits your agency’s capacity to maintain it. If you hire a consultant to develop the dashboard, be sure that you can maintain the final product in-house.

Tip: An easy starting place is to create an at a glance dashboard that gives an overall picture of progress toward meeting city goals.


Step 6: Plan for Data Maintenance

Who is going to maintain the data that is displayed in the dashboard? Ideally, your staff is regularly inputting operational data (i.e. info like fitness pass sales or pothole work orders) into some kind of database, likely in the form of your finance, public works, recreation, and/or other software system.

If you have the capacity to build a connected dashboard with an automated connection between the data in the department or agency database(s) and your dashboard, then voila, no additional data entry is required and your dashboard reflects real time information automatically! If you’re investing in a custom dashboard application, make sure it can automate this process.

If you’re not quite to the point where you can automatically populate the dashboard data, you’ll have to periodically export the data from your software system into an Excel format and update your dashboard manually. Other data that you collect (i.e. from a resident survey) can also be entered into Excel manually on a periodic basis.

Somewhere along the way, you are going to find out that the data you have is incomplete, has been inconsistently entered into the system, or is just plain wrong. Your dashboard is only as good as the data it displays, so plan for, and invest in, maintenance resources to continually keep your dashboard accurate and effective. Take the time to clean up any problematic data as early as possible in the process.

Dashboards are only as reliable as their data…you’re going to have to clean it up and maintain it.


Step 7: Decide on Your Visuals.

The beauty of a dashboard is its ability to very quickly and easily display patterns, problems, or opportunities. Choosing the right graphs and charts is critical here because the right one will really pull out key aspects of the data.

What story do want your dashboard to tell? What are the key performance measures that you want to see at a glance? Depending on the amount of data that you have, there are all kinds of things you can display. Does the chart tell you something important about your organization’s performance against a goal, or is it simply a pretty visual?

If you’re creating a homegrown dashboard, a staff member with good Excel skills can show you some of the possibilities. If you’re using dashboard software, explore the template options and think about what is most appropriate for your needs.

Think through the types of issues the dashboard data can display, and choose those that are most important for your agency and the public.

For more in-depth information about designing a dashboard, see the write-up of the Transportation Improvement Board’s experience in creating an interactive dashboard.


Step 8: Show off Your Dashboard!

Now you’ve got a beautiful dashboard that you can continue to enhance over time. Your dashboard should be a primary tool for communicating progress toward your agency’s goals. Develop a plan for how you will use the dashboard to communicate internally, to the public, and to elected officials. Some larger agencies have regular monthly meetings to review performance data, explore the questions that the numbers raise, and refine strategies. You may want to highlight the entire dashboard on a dedicated performance page of your website. Alternatively, you can integrate relevant dashboard visuals into the existing pages of your website (such as a pothole visual on the public works page) where viewers are more likely to find them. Reviewing the dashboard once or twice a year as an agenda item on the council or commission meeting could also be a strategy.

Dashboards can be an effective tool to focus your organization on improving and sustaining performance in key areas. It’s important to spend time up front carefully defining what the key indicators of performance are for your organization. Once you’ve identified those indicators, the dashboard is simply a compelling visual that allows the viewer to do a progress check at a glance.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.



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