Thursday, July 8, 2010
Are you addicted to performance management readings? There’s a new book out that you might want to stash in your beach bag.
A newly-released book by a trio of authors, Performance Management in the Public Sector, (available August 2nd) takes a strategic and theory-based look at performance approaches. The authors – Wouter Van Dooren, Geert Bouckaert, and John Halligan – are well-known academics in the field from Belgium and Australia. Their book provides useful context for people new to the field and a set of practical steps for those designing a new performance management strategy for their agency.
Their book examines the complexities and nuances of performance, performance measurement, and performance management.  Their focus is on the concepts and system of performance, not so much on the actual crafting of performance measures. Here are some interesting insights:
The Challenge. A focus on performance is seen by some as a key tool for reformers to make government more effective, efficient, and accountable. But the value of a performance focus is not unchallenged. Some say that an over-emphasis on performance can undercut other democratic values, such as: rule of law, eradicating corruption, safeguarding equity, and transparency. The challenge is to strike the right balance.
The Design. The authors look at the design of performance systems through the lens of a Rubrick’s Cube. They observe that performance can be analyzed at three levels (and in a rational and stable system, they would be nested). The first level is Macro, where a performance framework would reach across an entire governance system and focus on over-arching outcomes. The second level is Meso, which focuses on the performance of a policy sector, such as education. And the third level is Micro, which focuses at the level of an agency or a program.
The Uses and Users. In addition, they note that performance information has three uses, by three different types of users:
  • Learning (of greatest interest to program managers and those in the delivery system)
  • Steering and controlling (of greatest interest to executives)
  • Accountability (of greatest interest to legislators, auditors, and stakeholders)
The different uses and users imply different ways of designing and implementing a performance management system. However, these different uses and users create tensions in any system, because they create different dynamics.   In addition, performance information is used at different parts of an agency or program, by different actors: in the policy cycle (e.g., development, evaluation), the financial cycle (e.g.,. budgeting, accounting), and the contract cycle (negotiation, monitoring).
The Adoption. Further, the approaches used to help an organization adopt a performance system will vary depending on the nature of the organization. Production organizations (like Social Security) can easily measure their activities, outputs and outcomes. Craft organizations (like law enforcement) have observable results, but their processes are not easily observed. Procedural organizations (like mental health counseling) have observable outputs but their outcomes are less defined. And coping organizations (like the Diplomatic Corps) have problems in observing both outputs and outcomes!
The Implementation. My favorite section of their book deals with the balancing of the different uses of performance information. They declare “measurement changes behavior” and then offer a series of examples of both positive and negative behaviors. They offer strategies for reducing dysfunctional behavior, but this involves trade-offs between the uses and audiences – setting targets (which legislators like for accountability) encourages setting low bars, but abandoning targets can be helpful at “triggering dialogue and learning effects” (which benefit program delivery managers).
Interestingly, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget is clearly leaning toward the learning and steering uses of performance information while the Congress is proposing new legislation to strengthen the accountability elements of performance information.
The Conclusion. The book concludes with an interesting challenge. Over the past two decades, there has been an enormous amount of effort to design and implement performance systems. However, implementing performance management systems that are actually used by decision makers to improve performance and results has been episodic. The question the authors raise is: should more emphasis be placed on improving implementation and leadership or would it be more beneficial to fundamentally rethink how performance management should be pursued in the first place?
The authors offer some interesting insights, but you’ll have to read the book to find out!!

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