Shaping Child Welfare Policy Via Performance Measurement

Article excerpt

Performance measurement is generally depicted as a neutral, technical exercise providing objective data for decision-making. But it also has a normative role in framing policy problems and solutions. This article explores the role of indicators in shaping child welfare, comparing stated policy with performance indicator regimes in England. It shows how indicators construct child welfare narrowly as investigation and placement, contradicting the more comprehensive family support approaches of policy and legislation.

Performance measurement is one element of global public management reforms (termed the new public management) involving market-oriented forms of governance and the restructuring of welfare states. Such changes include separating purchaser and provider roles, developing quasi-markets of service providers, decentralizing budgets, and contracting for service delivery. They require new forms of control to replace bureaucratic-hierarchical modes, and performance measurement is presented as a tool for indirect control of public expenditure, oversighting managerial competence and providing accountability for results (Sanderson, 1998). Generally considered a tool of public choice, rationalist approaches to policy making, performance measurement requires defining objectives (outcomes) for policies and programs and using quantitative data (indicators) to monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of the strategies for achieving those objectives. Indicators purport to provide an objective view of performance to inform decisions about policy or program adjustments (Barratt, 1997).

But policy is not a rational, stepwise process in which knowledge or data generates solutions or options for solving self-evident policy problems. Rather, the objectives of government policies and programs are contested, complex, and ambiguous. Policy is more than the formal, identifiable decisions or statements of government. It is an interactive process in which definitions of social problems and their solutions are constantly shifting and being redefined (Considine, 1994). This implies an interactive model of the knowledge-policy link whereby the producers of knowledge (facts, statistics, theories, and research findings) are not outside the political world of values and goals (Innes, 1990). Conceptualizing quantitative data as having underpinning values and ideas facilitates investigation of the role of indicators in shaping or constructing policy, not only retrospectively monitoring its implementation.

This article has two aims: to discuss the relationship between performance measurement and policy and to explicate the implications of this relationship for child welfare policy and practice. In doing so, it explores how the development and use of performance indicators may operate to enable or constrain certain policy perspectives. In many jurisdictions around the WOrId7 performance measurement accelerated during the 1990s at the same time as significant concerns about child welfare services were raised. Preventative interventions such as family support and family preservation, and moves to differential response systems and community partnership approaches, were positioned as essential to child welfare reforms (Daro, 2003; Penn & Gough, 2002; WaIdfogel, 1998; Wilding & Thoburn, 1997). This article argues there is a disjuncture between performance measurement regimes that focus narrowly on investigation and placement and the development of these more comprehensive family support approaches to protecting children.

While performance measurement has been underway for several years, it has not been subject to much critical appraisal at a policy level within the child welfare field. The literature is concerned mainly with methodological and implementation issues, including the difficulties of data collection, comparability, and potential distortions to practice (for example, Courtney 1993; Poertner, McDonald, & Murray, 2000). …