Kelman: A concept whose time has come

The Bush administration deserves kudos for focusing on a small thing called performance

In 1988, in a book titled “Making Public Policy: A Hopeful View of American Government,” I wrote that one of the most important steps that the government could take to improve performance would be “the development of output-oriented performance measures in government agencies and the evaluation of performance against those measures.”

In writing that, I was taking a cue from something I had been taught in graduate school in 1972 by my professor and mentor, James Wilson, who argued that if you could give government organizations clear goals, performance would improve.

Government did not immediately rush to embrace these ideas. But during the past decade, attention to performance measurement has been a megatrend in public management worldwide.

In 1993 the federal government passed the Government Performance and Results Act, mandating that agencies develop goals and measures. In 1997, the new Labour government in the United Kingdom made performance targets critical to its strategy for improving public services delivery, which in turn was Tony Blair’s top domestic priority. I have even spoken about performance measurement in government at a conference in Turkey.

I have been teaching classes on performance measurement and management in executive education for General Schedule 15 and Senior Executive Service managers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for the past five years.

I initially felt that many students seemed surprised that this topic was worthy of discussion in an executive education program focusing on management and leadership challenges for senior officials. I had the feeling that many thought this was a peripheral task for low-level employees who prepare unread reports for the Office of Management and Budget.

The first time I asked a class of GS-15s whether their bosses — government career executives or political appointees — spent a significant amount of time working on performance measurement, few students said career bosses did so and even fewer said the political ones did.

The number has been creeping up steadily. When I recently asked that question to a group of GS-15s, their responses were dramatically different. About two-thirds said their career bosses spent significant time on performance measurement. Interestingly, among the political appointees, the proportion was higher — about 80 percent.

More than half of the recent participants said they believed most frontline employees in their organizations would be familiar with measures applying to their organization, or at least to their unit.

My guess is that this uptick relates to the Bush administration’s emphasis on performance measurement as part of its budget-related Program Assessment Rating Tool. I confess that I have had mixed feelings about this program because of its punishment-oriented implications.

I was concerned at the beginning of the Bush administration that, in its zeal to ignore every management reform the Clinton administration had started, performance measurement would also be pushed aside.

So the Bush administration deserves credit for its efforts. Performance measurement may now be institutionalized, which is good news for government performance.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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