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Public Works Magazine - Making the Grade: Data-driven Decision-making Drives Top Performers.

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By Leslie Drahos

Why are Utah's roads, bridges, and buildings in better shape than any other state's?

Because the Beehive State tries harder, says Neal Johnson, director of the Government Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trust which, in partnership with Governing magazine, has issued a report titled "Grading the States 2008."

"Utah sets aside funds at the beginning of each project amounting to 1.1% of total replacement value, and has a five-year, statewide capital building plan," says Johnson.

Grades for each state's infrastructure ranged from Utah's A to a D+ for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Ten states earned the national average of B-, with 17 states above the average and 23 others below it.

"The greatest contributing factor to low grades is deferred maintenance based on decisions made by policymakers," says Johnson. "States with higher grades adopt a "fix-what-you-already-have' attitude rather than going for the new. Michigan, which received an A-, subscribes to the motto "fix it first'."

To assess how well a state manages its roads, bridges and buildings, the Government Performance Project team factored in the degree to which a state has transparent and effective capital planning and project monitoring processes, maintains its assets, and coordinates work within the state and with other jurisdictions.

Failure to maintain, improve, and plan for future physical infrastructure needs is reflected in lower grades.

"In 2001, all Massachusetts buildings were assessed for maintenance needs, uncovering a $1.2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance; that figure is now double," Johnson says. "Massachusetts also has $1 billion in deferred maintenance for bridges; the state, which has not had a capital plan, finally published one this year."

As governor of the state earning the highest grade, Jon Huntsman Jr. says that infrastructure has long been a top priority to Utah's policymakers. "Investment in our infrastructure is critical to continuing the economic success and quality of life we enjoy," he says. "This proactive approach maximizes cost savings from preventive maintenance rather than reconstruction."

The report notes that states with the highest grades are making better management a top priority. Washington state, for example, holds governor-led public meetings to monitor program results and improvements; Utah uses a financial tracking system that provides real-time data; and Virginia links employee rewards to improved service delivery and agency goals.

At the report's launch, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm discussed how a strategic, statewide perspective drives the state's executive branch even under tough economic circumstances. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue shared his experiences pressing more than 300 private-sector representatives into volunteer service to benchmark state operations against best business practices. The changes have achieved stronger customer service results.

"Grading the States 2008" is the fourth in a series, the most recent issued in 2005. Launched nearly a decade ago, the Government Performance Project provides comprehensive research, knowledge, and support to establish a culture of effective management and meaningful policy action that better serves citizens.

For the first time, Johnson is receiving calls asking about best practices, prompting a search for the best way to work with state leaders on an exchange of ideas and to pass along suggestions based on project research.

"Fostering meaningful change through fact-based research provides all states with useful knowledge to pursue innovative solutions that will strengthen performance and service to the public," says Susan Urahn, managing director of The Pew Center on the States. "State leaders and managers should look beyond the grade and pursue the opportunity that the report provides: to operate more efficiently and effectively, improve transparency, and be more accountable for resu

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