China Looks West for Performance Management

China embraces performance management in an effort to wring out greater productivity and transparency.
by | August 2011

The night before graduation a few weeks ago, one student raised a glass for a toast. “To performance!” he said. Another tried to top him: “To benchmarks!”

There’s nothing like the exuberance of grads, especially policy wonks finishing advanced training for government careers. But two things were novel about this party. One was that the toasts to cutting-edge strategies were from Chinese government officials in Nanjing. The other was that they soaked up their enthusiasm after studying performance management in the United States.

China’s economy is shifting faster than anyone can manage it. Its growth is generating vast piles of money and enormous income disparities. Officials there talk of China as a developing country, even though they’ve already built a high-speed rail network with trains that move at more than 200 mph (faster than the takeoff speed of a 747), on elevated tracks that bypass street traffic and freight trains below. It’s a wonder of the world and far faster than anything in the U.S. But it’s also been plagued by recent charges of corruption and safety problems.

The U.S. and China are vastly different places, but they’re approaching the same problem -- if from very different directions. In an effort to get value for their money, they’re reaching into the government reform toolbox for performance management. Both countries are searching for strategies to wring out greater productivity and create greater transparency.

In the U.S., the movement got its boost 17 years ago, when then-New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton pioneered CompStat, which translated the old system of following crimes with push pins on city maps into almost-real-time tracking of what crimes were occurring where, with aggressive police follow-up. In 2000, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley took the strategy citywide with CitiStat, and when he became governor, he broadened the effort to all programs through StateStat.

The feds have followed the trail with new map-based performance tracking: In 2009, the Obama administration committed to Web-tracking every dollar in the nearly $800 billion Recovery Act. That kind of transparency, the feds calculated, would help show citizens how the program helped their own neighborhoods. Its transparency would also create strong incentives to discourage state and local officials from funneling money into politically embarrassing programs. The result was remarkable. The money got out fast, and there were very few tales of the kinds of waste, fraud or abuse that plagued previous federal grant programs.

It’s that quest for efficiency and transparency that especially intrigues Chinese officials. In Shanxi Province, the government is making massive investments to clean badly polluted rivers. Officials are looking at Maryland’s BayStat as a model, which tracks the impact of policy changes on water quality, helping to squeeze the most environmental improvement from the money.

The transparency side of performance management is much trickier for Chinese officials. In American performance management systems, the focus has been both internal (making government more efficient by shining a light on who performs best) and external (connecting citizens better with the work of government). Using the Internet to promote democracy makes Chinese officials nervous. So the central government is initially focusing on the internal; it has quietly hired policy managers to roll out performance systems to crack down on corruption. Transparency in operations, at least inside the government, makes it much quicker to spot who is siphoning off cash and, officials hope, to discourage the practice to begin with.

Meanwhile, citywide performance systems are starting to get traction. In Nantong, a city of nearly 8 million near Shanghai, the government has launched a very American-like system: Strategic goals frame specific goals, which are translated into indicators and tracked on a regular basis. In fact, Nantong has pushed its performance system down to the assessment of individual organizations and managers. Successful organizations get rewards, and managers get “excellent leader” recognition.

Less certain is how far this trail will go. Fareed Zakaria, a journalist with CNN and Time magazine, notes that for 30 years China has looked to the West and especially to the United States to modernize its economy. But now the Chinese wonder if they need a new strategy based more clearly on distinctly Chinese qualities.

As traditional pro-Mao forces push to gain control within China and assert a more China-centric strategy, the country’s openness to outside tools like performance management might shrink. The new guard of reformers, on the other hand, might continue to see great value in the efficiency and transparency approaches that performance management offers.

That frames a pair of truly fascinating puzzles. As the two countries struggle to deal with a complex, globalizing world, will they work out of the same bag of management tools? And even if they head down very different roads, do the challenges of a 21st century government inevitably force them toward the same management strategies, even if they’re used toward very different ends? No one knows the answers, but the questions shine a bright and fascinating light back on the staying power of the American invention of performance management, where Web-based efforts pushed governments past stick pins on old maps.

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