Joining Public Accountability and Performance Management: A Case Study of Lethbridge, Alberta

By Hildebrand, Richard; McDavid, James C. | Canadian Public Administration, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Joining Public Accountability and Performance Management: A Case Study of Lethbridge, Alberta


Hildebrand, Richard, McDavid, James C., Canadian Public Administration


The early 1990s saw rapid change in public governance and management. Beginning with the experience of New Zealand (1989 onwards), the strategy of using performance measurement to manage for results was adopted in many western countries (Barzelay 1997). Performance measurement for both accountability and performance management was a key theme of this movement. Performance measurement was expected to drive both external reporting and internal performance management to improve efficiency and effectiveness (Borins 1995; Hood 1995; Osborne and Gaebler 1992; Wholey and Hatry 1992).

The enthusiasm for results-based management that dominated in the 1990s has given way to a more balanced and even sceptical view of results-focused public management. Many analysts are saying that public performance reports have been underutilized and have not met their promises (Pollitt 2006). In Performance Measurement, Reporting, Obstacles and Accountability: Recent Trends and Future Directions, Paul G. Thomas notes that "it is easier to find examples of where performance measurement systems have been abandoned or drastically scaled back than it is to find examples of where such systems have become an influential feature of government decision-making and have contributed demonstrably to improved performance by public organizations" (2006: 1).

More recently, several contributors to this literature have suggested that constructing performance measurement systems for both external accountability and internal performance management is likely to fail. Melvin Dubnick (2005) sees the accountability/performance management model as doctrine with neither a theoretical nor an empirical underpinning. Donald Moynihan (2008) is less categorical but suggests that the "promise" of "new public management" that performance measurement for accountability would include decentralizing organizations to encourage results-based management has generally not been implemented. Governments continue to prefer controlling administrative processes as well as (now) to expect performance results.

James McDavid and Irene Huse (2008) have suggested that in political environments where the incentives for stakeholders militate against reporting shortcomings and (publicly) learning from mistakes, public performance reporting tends to be an end in itself, used primarily for informational and symbolic accountability purposes. The performance measurement and public reporting process tends to be decoupled from internally focused performance measurement for performance management. Their research in the British Columbia government suggests that expecting performance measurement and reporting regimes to contribute simultaneously to accountability and performance management (improving efficiency and effectiveness) may not be a workable strategy. Donald Kettl and Steven Kelman (2007), though advocates of performance measurement, concur in this assessment.

This article presents an in-depth examination of how performance measurement, public reporting and performance management have been connected in one Canadian municipality. The City of Lethbridge, Alberta, offers us an opportunity to examine performance information and to compare the extent to which city council members and senior managers use this information and the kinds of uses to which both groups apply the information. To date, no study in one jurisdiction has systematically compared the perceptions of the elected decision-maker and manager as to the usefulness of performance information and performance reports. A key question addressed here is the extent to which it is possible to connect public performance reporting for elected officials to internal uses of the same performance information.

This article is divided into six sections. In the following sections, we summarize what has been learned from previous research about performance measurement and performance management in local governments.

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Joining Public Accountability and Performance Management: A Case Study of Lethbridge, Alberta
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