Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Learning by Using Performance Measures in Local Governments: The Perspective of Public Managers

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Learning by Using Performance Measures in Local Governments: The Perspective of Public Managers

Article excerpt


In the last three decades there have been numerous public sector reforms in developed and emerging Countries (OECD 2007) focusing on several matters but with similar objectives (improving quality and reducing civil service costs). The public sector has experienced increasing external pressure from citizens, higher level governments and supranational institutions (e.g. European Union, OECD, IMF) for higher quality civil services, more responsibility in the use of public money and more accountability for results (Barzelay 2001; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004; Kettl 2005; Flynn 2007).

One of the "trajectories" of modernization refers to the "measurement of performance" (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011, 106-110) based on the assumption that the availability of performance information fosters public managers' learning on what is happening in the "black box" and in particular on the final causes of successes and dysfunctions. Performance-based reforms assume that "Decision makers will learn from performance information and in turn they will make better-informed decisions and improve government performance" (Moynihan 2005, 203).

As de Bruijn states "... an organization can learn what it does well and where improvements are possible" (2007, 8) by the use of performance information. According to Behn "From performance measures public managers may learn what is not working. If so they can stop doing it and reallocate money and people from this non-performing activity to more effective undertakings" (2003, 592).

According to Mintzberg (1975) more often than not managers prefer to gather performance data informally ("non-routine feedback") by talking to collaborators, customers and other people rather than formally by analyzing management reports (Van Dooren and Van de Walle 2008, 4; Kroll 2013, 273). However, in larger organizations the production of performance measures needs to be incorporated into management reports to guarantee the quality of information used in decision making processes. Therefore, hereafter the expression "use of performance measures" is intended as the utilization of "written" or "formal" information about performance, which is "incorporated" into reports produced by the measurement system (Van Dooren, Bouckaert and Halligan 2010).

Having said that, the performance-based reform success depends on public managers' use of written or formal information about performance to learn what is not working and why there is inefficiency and ineffectiveness (Hatry 1999; Pollitt 2000; Van Dooren 2008). If public managers did not utilize performance information, there might had been problems in the actualization of a performance-based reform in consideration of different "technocratic/rational" and/or "cultural/political" factors, such as resources, information, goal orientation, risk taking and attitudes, levels of managerial decision flexibility, balance between politicians' and administrative managers' powers, etc. (de Lancer Julnes and Holzer 2001; Verhoest, Peters, Bouckaert and Verschuere 2004; Bass and Riggio 2006; Park and Rainey 2008).

With that in mind the aim of this paper is to see whether public managers "learn" by using performance information. The ways of learning from past experience in a public administration context are identified. In particular the focus is on the last Italian performance-based reform of public administrations (Brunetta1 Reform: Legislative Decree 150/09) that responded to the failures of the previous Italian public sector reforms, which did not succeed in diffusing performance management processes, instruments, and methodologies.

There were many reasons of failures. Among others, a bureaucratic culture (Crozier 1964; Caiden 1991) prevailed on a managerial one (Borgonovi 2004; Jones and Mussari 2004; Ongaro and Valotti 2008), in connection with the Weberian model which characterizes Italian public administrations (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011, 62). …

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