3 performance management tips

Author says OMB and others should know the limitations of performance management

The Bush administration’s focus on improving agency performance through the use of management score cards and a program rating tool has earned kudos from many public-sector management experts. But Beryl Radin, a professor of public administration at American University, is not one who lavishes praise. In her new book, “Challenging the Performance Movement,” Radin is especially critical of how the Office of Management and Budget has implemented performance management.

In her critique of the performance management movement in the public sector, she focuses on the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993 and OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). “Neither of these federal performance management activities fits easily into the institutional structures, functions and political relationships found in the American political system,” Radin writes in the introduction to her book.

The No Child Left Behind Act, with its standardized tests to measure performance, is a poster child for the performance movement gone awry, Radin said. “Teachers are under so much pressure because their own performance evaluations are based on the test that they lie, or they give kids the test beforehand.”

In the 1990s, Radin worked for several years in the Department of Health and Human Services as special adviser to the assistant secretary for management and budget. Radin said she is sympathetic to the goals of the performance movement, but her book is about its limitations. She offers the following three tips for OMB officials, lawmakers and federal program managers who are implementing GPRA and PART.

1. Measure agency performance in ways that reflect diverse public values.

Radin said she believes that OMB, for example, should not act on its own in establishing performance management goals for federal agencies. Instead, it should consult with Congress and other constituents, including state and local government officials, who play a role in the success or failure of many federal programs.

“There is a body of examples where that has worked,” said Christopher Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Gaining that agreement, he said, requires “getting people together who genuinely have disparate agendas and saying, ‘Let’s try to figure out a set of performance goals and performance measures that meet your needs, meet my needs, and let’s see if we can work toward those.’”

2. Rely on a varied repertoire of performance measures instead of a narrow set of measures to evaluate federal programs.

Radin said program performance measures should reflect the different expectations of everyone involved in a particular federal program. But Radin’s critics say no program can perform well if people expect conflicting outcomes.

“You need clarity and agreement to have good performance,” said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government performance and accountability. “Where there’s disagreement on program goals, it impacts program performance.”

3. Be skeptical of performance data systems that are costly and rely only on quantitative measures.

Radin said information about program performance cannot be separated from political or ideological interests. For that reason, she said, the best performance measures are a mix of qualitative and quantitative data.

In the book, she illustrates the misuse of performance management data, citing the Falls Church, Va., Police Department.

“That department requires each patrol officer to write an average of three tickets, or make three arrests, every 12-hour shift, and to accumulate a minimum total of 400 tickets and arrests per year,” she wrote. “Writing a ticket for a broken taillight carries the same weight as an arrest for armed robbery.”

Mihm said he agrees with Radin that measuring program outcomes, which are the focus of the government accountability movement, remains a challenging task. But, he added, he is willing to trust his instincts that a focus on accountability has changed federal managers’ way of thinking.

“When you go down this road and start focusing on results, you’ll have, in relatively short order, an intuitive sense that you’re more effective,” he said. “And once the data catches up with you, it’ll show your intuitive sense was right.”

5 faulty assumptions of performance management proponentsIn her new book “Challenging the Performance Movement,” American University professor Beryl Radin identifies the following as faulty assumptions of performance management:

  • Program outcomes can be clearly defined as a basis for performance measurement.

  • Outcomes can be specified independently of program inputs, processes and outputs.

  • Outcomes can be quantified and measured.

  • Outcomes are controllable and susceptible to external timing.

  • Data to measure program outcomes is available, clear and accurate.

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