Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Promise of Public Sector Performance Measurement: Anodyne or Placebo?

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Promise of Public Sector Performance Measurement: Anodyne or Placebo?

Article excerpt


The latest prescription for the putative ills of public administration comes in a variety of flavors but its main active ingredient would seem to be performance measurement and its target the resource allocation process. The range of flavors reflects the particular tastes of the variety of groups backing some sort of administrative reform: those favoring a more effective government; those wanting to economize and make government smaller; and those seeking to run government "like a business" and optimize efficiency. This article is grounded in the view that administrative reforms ultimately reflect political values and cannot be understood as simple technical judgments.

The idea of performance measurement is ubiquitous. It was mandated at the federal level with the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GoPRA). The use of performance measurement to connect the resources consumed by public-sector programs with the results achieved has received the blessings of the American Society for Public Administration, the Urban Institute, the National Academy of Public Administration, the Government Finance Officers Association through its Distinguished Budget Award Program, and the National Advisory Council on State and Local Budgeting through its Service Efforts and Accomplishment Reporting project. The 1993 federal GoPRA mirrors similar legislation enacted in several states (Aristigueta, 1999; Animons, 1995; Epstein, 1992; Wholey and Hatry, 1992).

Performance measurement is also a central plank of the "reinventing government" movement (Osborne and Plastrik, 1997; National Performance Review, 1993; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). Books and journal articles on benchmarking and performance auditing, measurement, monitoring, and management-including several books issued under the imprimatur of the International City/County Management Association-proliferate. Indeed, the public-sector performance measurement phenomenon is international in scope and is the centerpiece of what has come to be known as the New Public Management (Terry, 1998; Halachmi and Bouckaert, 1996).

Many public administrators and academics clearly be lieve that performance measurement systems can serve to realize the promise of professional public-sector management. However, the research literature has reported performance measurement utilization rates among local governments ranging from 25% to 80% of respondents and the extent to which these systems are actually used to support resource decisions is questionable (Poister and Streib, 1999).

So what exactly is the promise of performance measurement? How do these new initiatives differ from past failures? Is this fresh promise likely to be realized in the new millennium or does the candent optimism associated with the latter simply warm prospects for the former? This article examines salient research issues related to these questions and reflects the relevant research literature to which the author has made a small contribution. The article also summarizes the author's experiences as a local government practitioner during which time he toiled under a variety of performance measurement systems, assisted in the development of one that he also administered for two years, and designed another as a consultant. Like many who have become involved with performance measurement systems at the program level, he has gone from ardent enthusiast to cold realist but it is his hope that this analysis is presented in the same scientific spirit that initially led him to performance measurement.


Performance measurement has been a staple of public administration since the turn of the last century. The New York Bureau of Municipal Research first developed budgetary systems based on workload measures shortly before World War II. Ridley (1927) and Ridley and Simon (1938) issued early works on measuring the performance of municipal service delivery systems. …

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