Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Lesson from the Quiet Company

Northwestern Mutual (NML), Milwaukee's second largest corporation (112th largest in the United States), is highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article as possibly the only company in corporate American that invites a small group of policyholders to evaluate the company and issue an annual report. According to Ed Zore, NML CEO, every year the company brings in four or five policyholders to pour over books and meet with senior management. Mr. Zore states:

"...they come up with ideas for us that are usually pretty helpful on how we can improve the business. It keeps us on our toes because we know every year we're going to have some new people that come in and we've got to explain to them all we do and how we do it. They always challenge us..."

The public sector could learn something from NML. Why not invite a few taxpayers into some of our large public institutions to kick the tires, interview department heads and issue an annual report. Essentially, this is what was recommended by the Public Policy Forum in last year's report on City of Milwaukee economic development efforts. The recommendation was to have the city "submit a comprehensive annual report on economic development progress to the common council, the mayor, and general public." After all, why spend $100 million per year on economic development if we don't know what we're getting out of our investment.

Just this month, the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development published its first annual report. It provides details on jobs created and retained, number of housing units created, private dollars leveraged and amount public support. To make future annual reports more robust it may be beneficial to include performance comparisons with previous years and other peer cities along with notes on any progress made on strategic goals.

Like at NML, where policyholders annually challenge upper management to prove their worth, it may be time for us taxpayers to annually challenge our governments to report measurable and strategic results.

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