How to Develop a Measurement Capability

Definition: A performance measure is an indicator of progress toward achieving a goal; it is a "you are here" on the map of progress. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) defines performance measurement as the ongoing monitoring and reporting of program accomplishments, particularly progress toward pre-established goals, typically conducted by program or agency management. Performance measures may address the type or level of program activities conducted (process), the direct products and services delivered (outputs), or the results of those products and services (outcomes). A "program" may be any activity, project, function, or policy that has an identifiable purpose or set of objectives.

Keywords: evaluation, Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act, GPRA, GPRAMA, logic model, measurement, outcome measures, outcomes, performance management, performance measurement, performance reference model, strategic planning

MITRE SE Roles and Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) are expected to understand the general principles and best practices of performance measurement methods and systems. They are expected to help sponsors develop a measurement capability in the systems acquisition and/or the operational organization. They assist in collecting and using performance measures to assess progress toward achieving strategic goals and objectives and to inform decisions about resource allocation.


Since 1997, Congress has required federal agencies to develop strategic plans with goals, strategies, and performance measures. They are required to submit annual performance reports to show progress toward achieving their strategic goals. The legislation containing those requirements is the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), originally passed in 1993 and updated in 2010 with the GPRA Modernization Act (GPRAMA) [1]. The only federal legislation that requires strategic planning and performance measurement, GPRAMA requires each agency to develop a four-year strategic plan (to be updated within a year after the start of each new presidential term of office), an annual performance plan, and an annual performance report. In specifying what must be included in those documents, GPRAMA requires that a strategic plan must show the link between strategic goals and performance goals. A strategic plan must also contain an evaluation plan that includes performance measures.

GPRAMA designates the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the agency responsible for executing the law. In Circular A-11 (updated by OMB every year or two), OMB outlines what agencies should provide in their strategic plans, performance plans, and performance reports [2]. Congress and OMB emphasized the need to show the ultimate intended and actual impact of federal agencies: the results, or the "R," in GPRAMA. OMB has been increasing its emphasis on evaluation, which is a way to make sure that what matters is measured, that what is measured is really what is intended to be measured, and that results reported are credible.

Congress and the Administration are placing increased emphasis on performance and results for a simple reason: it is the best solution for achieving success when money is tight. Unless performance improves, they have basically three other, highly unpopular directions: raise taxes, cut programs, or increase debt.

The focus of GPRAMA and of the following discussion is on monitoring performance at the strategic or program level. This is not about measuring operational performance but about determining whether a program is on track to reaching its strategic goals so that leadership can make course corrections to increase the likelihood of achieving the strategic goals.

The Single Most Common Problem (and Its Solution)

At MITRE we are often asked to develop performance measures for a government program or other initiative. The most common problem about program performance cited in research—and that we have seen in practice—is that a program's goals/objectives have not been identified. It is impossible to develop measures of progress if we do not know where we are trying to go. Figure 1 summarizes the problem.

Figure 1. The Most Common Problem
Figure 1. The Most Common Problem

The first step in developing measures of progress is to identify the desired end point, or goal. One of the most useful tools for identifying goals, and for developing performance measures, is the logic model. A logic model (see Figure 2) is a map, a one-page bridge between planning and performance.

Figure 2. Defining Performance Measures with Logic ModelsSources: GAO-02-923, Strategies for Assessing How Information Dissemination Contributes to Agency Goals. GAO/GGD-00-10, Managing for Results: Strengthening Regulatory Agencies’ Performance Management, Ellen Taylor-Powell, 2000. A Logic Model: A Program Performance Framework, University of Wisconsin, Cooperative Extension Program Evaluation Conference.
Figure 2. Defining Performance Measures with Logic Models

The logic model in Figure 2 should be read from left to right:

  • The problem that the program was created to solve is identified on the left.
  • The next three columns are basic input-process-output. Inputs are people, funding, and other resources. Outputs are results of processes or activities. Output measures answer the question: "How do you know they really did that?" Outputs are usually expressed in numbers of units produced or units of service provided.
  • Outcomes are all about impact. They are answers to the question: "So what?" What difference did your product or service make? An initial outcome is softer, usually near term, and might be measured by before/after tests of understanding if a training service were the output. Customer satisfaction is a common short-term outcome measure. An intermediate outcome might include changes in behavior, and it might be measured by finding out how many of those who received training are actually using their new skills. (Note: Often, short-term and intermediate outcomes are combined as intermediate outcomes.) Long-term outcomes are the conditions the program/agency is trying to change and should be a mirror image of the problem on the left of the logic model. Thus measures of long-term outcomes can be relatively easy to identify. A program established to address the problem of homelessness among veterans, for example, would have an outcome measure that looks at the number and percentage of veterans who are homeless. (Defining "homeless" may be a separate issue to be addressed in a later implementation of data collection and reporting.)
  • Environmental factors can influence all stages of a program and need to be identified in agencies' strategic plans.

The extreme left and extreme right of the model are easiest to define. The hard part is to develop measures for outputs (although those are easiest) and especially for outcomes. How would you know you are making progress toward achieving your long-term goal before you get to that goal? What would tell you that you are on the right or wrong track? How would you know whether you need to make course corrections to get to the destination you want? In developing outcome measures, keep asking, like a four-year-old child, "Why?...Why?...Why?"

The further away from outputs you measure, the more likely that conditions outside the agency's/program's control are affecting the results observed. Factors such as the economy or the weather can affect long-term outcomes. And that is where third-party evaluation can be helpful to analyze the performance data, as well as other quantitative and qualitative information, to assess the impact of the agency/program on the outcomes.

The benefits of using a logic model are numerous:

  • It is the strategic plan on a page. The measures can be derived directly from a logic model.
  • A logic model can be a highly effective tool for communicating with stakeholders and for making sure that the activities, outputs, and outcomes are accurate in terms of their mission and business. Program people seem to "get it," and they help refine the model very quickly.
  • It makes the connection between inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes transparent and traceable.
  • Most important, it shows in a nutshell where you want to go.

Related Problems and Pitfalls

  • Clients tend to focus on outputs, not outcomes: Output measures are much easier, and they are under the agency's control. People know what they do, and they are used to measuring it. "I produced 2,500 widgets last year" or "On the average we provided two-second turnaround time." They can find it harder to answer the question: "So what?" They are not used to looking at the outcomes, or impact, of what they do. We need to keep asking "So what?" or "Why?" Move toward what would show impact or progress toward solving the problem the agency, program, or project was created to address.
  • Goals and objectives are often lofty and not really measurable "The goal is to conduct the best census ever." How do you measure that? Make the goals concrete enough that we can know whether they have been achieved and whether we are making progress toward them.
  • Tons of reports have measures that are ignored; no one knows how to use them: There is no plan to actually use the measures to make decisions about resource allocation. This is where agencies need to move from performance measurement to performance management, using the performance data to make resource allocation decisions based on credible evidence and including evaluations, analysis of agency culture, new directives from Congress, or higher levels of the Administration, etc.
  • The client wants to use measures that they already produce, regardless of whether those are actually useful, meaningful, or important: This is the argument that "we already report performance data and have been doing it for years." These are probably outputs, not outcomes, and even so, they need to be reviewed in light of the strategic goals/objectives to determine whether they show progress toward achieving end outcomes.
  • They want to identify a budget as an output or outcome: A budget is always an input. Just don't let the conversation go there.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

You need clear goals/objectives to even start developing performance measures. Without clear goals, you can only measure activities and outputs. You can show, for example, how many steps travelers have taken along a path, how much food was consumed, and how long they have been traveling. But you cannot know whether they are any nearer their destination unless you know the destination. They might be walking in circles.

Performance measures are derived from strategic plans. If the agency does not have a plan, it needs to develop one. There is much guidance and many examples on developing a plan.

Complete a logic model for the whole program. You can develop outcomes or measures as you go or wait until the end, but the measures help keep the goals/objectives and outcomes real.

To the maximum extent possible, ground the logic model in bedrock. In the priority listed, bedrock includes: Legislation, Congressional committee reports, executive orders, regulations, agency policies, and agency guidance. Legislation is gold. The Constitution is platinum (e.g., the requirement for a decennial census).

Long-term outcomes, or impact, are relatively straightforward to identify. It should reflect the problem that the program, agency, or project was created to solve. That is what you are trying to measure progress toward. If your program was created to address the problem of homelessness, the long-term outcome is a reduction of homelessness, regardless of how you decide to measure it.

Use caution in interpreting what the measures show. Performance measures tell you what is happening; they do not tell you why something is happening. You need to plan for periodic evaluations to get at causality. It is possible that your program kept things from being worse than they appear or that the results measured might have happened even without your program.

Fewer is better; avoid a shotgun approach to creating measures. Agencies tend to want to measure everything they do rather than focus on the most important few things. You might need to prioritize the goals to emphasize what’s most important to measure.

Look at similar agencies and programs for examples of performance measures. Two types of outcomes are particularly difficult to measure: (1) prevention and (2) research and development. How do you measure what did not happen, and how do you measure what might be experimental with a limited scope? The solution for the first is to find a proxy, and the best place to look might be at similar programs in other agencies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does a lot of prevention work and is a good place to look for examples. The solution to the second often takes the form of simply finding out whether anyone anywhere is using the results of the research.

The organization responsible for an agency's performance should be closely aligned with the organization responsible for its strategic planning. Otherwise, strategic plans and/or performance reports tend to be ignored. Performance management operationalizes an organization's strategic plan.

More frequent reporting tends to be better than less frequent. Agency performance reporting is required at least quarterly, with some agencies reporting monthly. provides a central location for agency performance reports [3]. Performance reporting can become easier if processes are put into place to streamline reporting the few most important data items.

Efficiency is output divided by input; effectiveness is outcome divided by input. You need a denominator in both cases to achieve these common measures of program performance. Efficiency is about producing more output with less input, but efficient does not always mean effective. Effectiveness is about results and therefore uses outcome measures. The logic model helps show clearly those relationships.

Table 1 summaries the symptoms and solutions.

Table 1. Symptoms and Solutions

Symptoms Solutions
Organization wants measures of progress but has not specified where they want to go. Develop a strategic plan with goals and objectives.
Organization wants to be outcome-focused but does not have outcomes identified. Develop logic model based on strategic plan, and identify intermediate and long-term outcomes.
Investments are not aligned to goals. Use logic model to align activities with outcomes.
Investments not achieving goals. Conduct evaluation to determine what is causing results observed.
Organization is buried in metrics too numerous to understand. Simplify performance measures so that only the most important and timely are reported.
Goals and objectives are too lofty and not really measurable. Revise goals and objectives, and include in each a statement of how each might be measured.
Client wants to use measures already being captured, regardless of whether they are useful, meaningful, or important. These are probably outputs, not outcomes, and need to be reviewed after alignment with strategic plan in logic model.

For related information, see the articles Earned Value Management and Acquisition Management Metrics in the SEG's Acquisition Systems Engineering section.

References and Resources

  1. Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act (GPRAMA) of 2010, Public Law 111-352, 111th Congress, January 4, 2011. Note: GPRAMA amends the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, P.L. 103-62 (1993).
  2. Office of Management and Budget, July 2013 (updated yearly), Circular A-11, Part 6, Strategic Plans, Annual Performance Plans, Performance reviews, and Annual Program Performance Reports.
  3. U.S. Government,, accessed July 28, 2015.

Additional References and Resources

Ellig, J., May 27, 2010, Ten Years of Results from the Results Act, Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Moynihan, D., 2013, The New Federal Performance System: Implementing the GPRA Modernization Act, IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Office of Management and Budget, March 2014, Performance and Management, Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2015.

Steinberg, H., December 2011, Using Performance Information to Drive Performance Improvement, Association of Government Accountants.

U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 2011, Performance Measurement and Evaluation: Definitions and Relationships, GAO-11-646SP.

U.S. Government Accountability Office, February 2012, Designing Evaluations: 2012 Revision (Supersedes PEMD-10.1.4), GAO-12-208G.

U.S. Government Accountability Office, June 2013, Managing for Results: Executive Branch Should More Fully Implement the GPRA Modernization Act to Address Pressing Governance Challenges, GAO-13-518.

U.S. Government Accountability Office, June 2013, Program Evaluation: Strategies to Facilitate Agencies' Use of Evaluation in Program Management and Policy Making, GAO-13-570.

W. K. Kellogg Foundation, February 2, 2006, Logic Model Development Guide.


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