David Leonhardt recently wrote an article for The New York Times, “The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often,” about trends to make government more efficient and effective. From his long career working with government agencies and nonprofit organizations around this very issue, our president, Philip Lee had some advice on how this movement can itself be most effective.

A “moneyball revolution” in government – using hard data on effectiveness to manage and fund programs – would indeed be a game changer. This revolution, however, has many predecessors – initiatives like GPRA, PART, and Performance Improvement Officers – all of which tend to be compliance exercises: meaningless hoops that agencies jump through to get their budgets approved.

As those members of the “quiet movement” can attest, “moneyball” has rules. One rule, in particular, will help to prevent the “moneyball revolution” from becoming another compliance exercise.

When assessing (or comparing) the performance of programs, always include the story behind the data. Data can tell you the extent to which a program’s objectives have been achieved: Did the job trainees get jobs? Did the students learn algebra? Did the patients get healthy? Did the stream get clean?

It’s a whole different matter, however, to determine why the program’s objectives were, or were not, achieved. Did the economy crash (or rebound)? Were some students gifted (or challenged)? In a bad economy, placing 10 percent fewer trainees in jobs might be a heroic performance. Conversely, in a booming economy, a 10 percent increase in placements might be a woeful performance.

Including the story behind the data when assessing performance will help to prevent decisions that are both wrong and unfair.