Seductive Reforms

Why management initiatives need to be saved from their own excessive promises.
July 9, 2008
Paul Posner
By Paul L. Posner  |  Contributor
The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University

Management reform" has become the perennial watchword in the world of public administration. Whether it be performance management, public-private partnerships or collaborative governance, a veritable avalanche of reform initiatives has captured the attention of management, and even political, officials in federal, state and local government. The reform initiativess invariably raise expectations, but all too frequently are followed by disillusionment and disenchantment, as they rarely live up to their hype.

Many of us blame recalcitrant legislators, truculent budget officials, crafty contractors and reluctant bureaucrats when the reforms fail to live up to the lofty promises of their champions. However, at least some of the blame for this predictable cycle of disillusionment rests with the reforms and reformers themselves. In brief, many reform concepts are seductive with their promises of new dawns of rationalism, harmony and effectiveness that cleverly disguise their inherent contradictions and limitations.

While I endorse many of the broad goals behind these initiatives, these reforms often share common premises that prove to be their undoing:

· A good idea which accepts no limitations.

· Extrapolating too heavily from programs of other sectors and nations that may not share the particular goals or constraints of American governments.

· A desire to supplant rational criteria for political ones.

· A distaste for political conflict.

· A failure to understand the realities of implementation.

· Competing values and constraints that only reveal themselves when reforms get serious consideration or during implementation

Reformers can be their own worst enemies, guilty of overreaching and disrespecting the competing values and constraints of stakeholders. Somehow, we need to find ways to save reforms from themselves. The following cautionary principles might help:

· Reframing expectations from supplanting politics to channeling political conflict through new forums and arguments.

· Adapting reforms to the system we have rather than expecting them to prompt a radical makeover.

· Designing reforms to supplement rather than replace traditional accountability.

· Limiting the scope and applicability to particular areas, sectors or stages of the process that offer greatest promise.

· Putting more eggs in the administrative than the policymaking basket

Let me illustrate using the case of performance budgeting at the federal level. Given the centrality of budgeting to everything that government does, it is understandable that this generation of performance reformers sought to integrate performance goals and metrics with the budget process. In fact, unlike many other reforms, performance management has become institutionalized within some federal and state agencies in recent years by following what I will call "strategic accountability" -- the plans and information have served to reframe questions for budgeting and oversight, help set new agendas, and provide valuable supplements to ongoing accountability frameworks.

However, reformers remain disappointed that the plans and metrics don't appear to directly drive resource-allocation decisions, as the president and Congress continue to rely on "politics as usual." Upon careful reflection, there are good reasons for this. First, the tie between the inputs of budgetary resources and the performance outcomes can be quite tenuous, as programs are often many steps removed from ultimate outcomes. Further, programs typically have multiple outcomes, and the most important are often the most difficult to measure. Weighing the relative importance of different dimensions is an inherently political task. For instance, the Program Assessment Rating Tool of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget gave a low score to the Community Development Block Grant due to its apparent weak impact on economic development. However, mayors argue that CDBG serves many goals in addition to economic development, and therefore PART's assessment was too limited in scope. Furthermore, they argue that the block grant was intentionally designed by Congress to reflect local, rather than national, priorities.

Notwithstanding these constraints, the performance movement is taking a turn toward what I call "instrumental accountability," where performance information is meant to serve a central role in allocating scarce resources and making other high stake decisions. Some in Congress, for instance, have pressed to eliminate any program with a poor PART score. The No Child Left Behind Act is another case where federal officials not only require performance tests for students but also prescribe a series of highly punitive sanctions that mechanically flow when the performance of students falls below established standards. Many agencies, such as the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, are seeking to launch new pay systems that link pay with performance and are anchored in the agency's performance goals.

The implicit accountability model for these initiatives is premised on what could be called the "mechanical model": If performance goes up, the agency or staff are rewarded with increased resources; if it goes down, they get penalized. While appealing on first glance, this type of model ignores other important factors that must properly be considered, such as relative priorities, equity considerations and the need for poorly performing programs to obtain greater resources in the near term to deal with problems. For instance, if the number of drug abusers goes up, do we really want to penalize the drug programs and their administrators with a loss of funds? That is the rather unsophisticated result of the instrumental model. In the human-resources area, quantitative performance metrics can fail to account for important, but difficult to measure, qualitative dimensions such as the treatment of staff and clients. For education, many would argue that the mechanical approach to No Child Left Behind is prompting schools to abandon subjects that are important, such as the arts, but that are not measured or regulated under the program.

The instrumental model constitutes a classic case of overreaching that ultimately will undermine the legitimacy of the performance movement itself. The more performance is used to judge, reward, and sanction, the greater the stakes and the greater the likelihood that they will undermine the legitimacy behind the metrics themselves. Bureaucratic and political actors will be more tempted to distort data and challenge metrics that threaten their resources.

We need to find alternatives to save reforms from their own excessive promises. In lieu of the mechanical model, the role of performance in budgeting is far more realistic and supportable by what I call the "agenda" model of performance management. Here, performance is not expected to provide the answers for complex and highly charged judgments involving resource allocation and personnel. Rather, performance management is expected to identify the important questions that need to be considered by decision makers. While far more modest than the hopes of some reformers to remake the budget process, such a vision is far more sustainable.

Paul Posner
Paul L. Posner | Contributor |