Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Performance Measurement in U.S. Counties: Capacity for Reform

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Performance Measurement in U.S. Counties: Capacity for Reform

Article excerpt

In recent years, there has been great interest in using performance measurement for increasing accountability and improving performance (Walters 1998; Holzer 1998; Ammons 1996; Greiner 1996; Keehley et al. 1997; Harris 1995). Despite efforts in many jurisdictions some observers are lowering their expectations for this management reform. Myriad challenges have been identified,, such as uncertain stakeholder support and inadequate technical ability to collect and analyze performance data (Radin 1998; Theurer 1998)--problems that have plagued previous management reforms (Berman 1998; Carroll 1995; Brown, Hitchcock, and Willard 1994; Berry, Berry, and Foster 1998). This article discusses how successful implementation of performance measurement requires careful attention to the management of underlying organizational capacities for achievement.

Based on a national survey of U.S. counties with populations over 50,000, this study examines the following questions: To what extent do counties have the capacity to implement performance measurement? Which capacities must be present: for different levels of implementation, and success? What can counties do to increase their capacity for performance measurement? To what extent dc) they undertake capacity-enhancing efforts? And, what is the effect of county structure and functions on efforts to increase capacity for performance measurement?

There are several reasons to study performance measurement at the county level. First, performance measurement is a means of providing accountability to county residents, who are often more informed about municipal than county affairs. In addition, it provides accountability to higher governments: counties receive far more funding from states and the federal government than do cities (U.S. Census 1997). Second, counties have historically been referred to as the "dark continent of American politics" and, therefore, have been understudied in public administration (Svara 1993; Menzel 1996; Streib and Waugh 1991). Since the 1980s, many counties have increased their abilities, leadership roles, and functions, yet we know very little about counties in this regard. Performance measurement, including the level of technical capacity (for example, the ability to analyze data and monitor goals) reflects on the professionalism of managers. Third, counties rely to a far greater extent than cities on commission forms of government; therefore, they are useful for studying the impact of county structures and the roles of elected officials on securing necessary' support for management reform (Cigler 1995; ICMA 1998; Lewis and Taylor 1994). Support from elected officials is often important in innovation, and it is especially crucial to performance measurement because it is, in part, undertaken to provide elected officials with improved information.


In the past decade, managers have learned a great deal about implementing management reforms. Slowly, attention has shifted from the specifics of new management innovation strategies (what is performance measurement'?) to strategies for implementing change (what steps do we need to take?). Today, however, more study is needed to better understand the conditions for implementing change (do we have the conditions that are required for success?) and to manage them (do we know what these conditions are?). In this context, the term capacity refers to organizations' ability to achieve their aims (Honadle 1980). Ensuring adequate stakeholder support and technical abilities have become key capacities for implementing management reforms.

In many ways, understanding the importance of managing stakeholder support and technical ability comes from lessons learned the hard way. Budget reforms such as the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System and Zero-Based Budgeting in the 1960s and 1970s brought such worthy concepts as goals into the budget lexicon; but were criticized as technically over-reaching (because of inadequate data collection capabilities) and were inadequately supported by political officials, who viewed these reforms as a threat to their power (Joyce 1993a; Gianakis and Stone 1997; Mikesell 1995). …

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