By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Distinguishing between performance measurement and performance improvement

In addition to the executive education program for up-and-coming Taiwanese civil servants, which (as faithful blog readers will know) I chair, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government also sponsors a number of executive education programs for government officials from mainland China. There is one for central government officials and another for province-level officials. I have never taught in these programs in the past, being partly put off by the fact that these are taught with consecutive interpretation where the students and I speak in our native languages and a translator translates after every few sentences.

However, I have been teaching two classes in an executive education program in Cambridge for Shanghai municipal officials. Interestingly, the Chinese have shown a strong interest in classes about using performance measurement in our executive education teaching, and that's the topic I've been teaching them. There is significant use of performance measurement in China, but it is very much associated with the evaluation and appraisal of individual senior officials for purposes of job actions such as promotions or demotions. Indeed, the Chinese regularly refer to "performance evaluation" rather than "performance measurement" or "performance management."

I tried to encourage them to expand the way they think about performance measurement from being something for once-a-year reporting and appraisal to an ongoing management tool. I said to them the key words to remember were "use" and "improvement" (as opposed simply to reporting what one's organization's performance was). To be fair, getting people to see performance measurement as a performance improvement managerial tool is also often a challenge in the United States -- a challenge the Obama administration has taken up.

One of the participants told me at lunch that her district is part of an experiment going on for the last three years in a number of places in China where the local residents are part of the annual process that results in selecting performance goals for the district (rather than these coming only from higher levels of government). She stated that as part of the experiment, district officials have meetings with residents once a month to explain their progress towards meeting the goals.

Today's class was about the use of performance measurement by former Mayor Anthony Williams to turn around the performance of the District of Columbia government. As part of the class, I ask students to vote before class about which five of a list of Williams' performance measures they like the most, and which five they like the least. The class tended to like most those measures most closely related to the well-being of a large number of citizens (such as reducing waiting time at the D.C, Department of Motor Vehicles), while liking least those that represented incompleted activities or inputs (for example, beginning the construction of something).

Asked what the best measures had in common, one student -- a little to my surprise -- stated that he had followed the teachings of China's President Hu Jintao in choosing the best measures. Interestingly, though, there was significant agreement between the Chinese students' lists of best and worst measures, and the lists American students (with no benefit of Hu Jintao) tend to come up with.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 09, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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