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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By The National Center for Public Performance
March 28, 2017
Every president since Nixon and until President Trump, has come into office with a clear management reform initiative. In the late 60s, Richard Nixon entered the White House promoting a “New Federalism.” This was highlighted by delegating responsibility for programs to the states, either through unfunded mandates or block-grants. Ford’s and Carter’s agenda was a product of the economic conditions of the time, meant to squash inflation and spur economic growth through deregulation or “cutting red tape.” Reagan’s management style was based on a philosophy that government itself is the cause of most social and economic woes, thus promoting a cut/discretion approach. George H.W. Bush can be described as “Reagan Light” as he allowed for things like a new civil rights act and the disabilities act. This era could be broadly described as “regulatory reform.” The year of 1991 marked a shift in approach with the National Performance Review. From this came the first large scale legislative initiative at the Federal level, The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). George W. Bush followed with The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) and Obama followed it with the GPRA Modernization Act.
Each example stated here is an attempt by congress and the executive branch to change the way bureaucracies work with the goal of improving performance. However, each of these were fraught with challenges. Beryl Radin noted administrators under GPRA had significant difficulty developing clear objectives for programs that could then be tracked by numerical measures. PART, as suggested by Donald Moynihan, resulted in merely passive use of performance information where managers collected and reported performance measures mostly to satisfy reform mandates. Moynihan described this process as “symbolic adoption.” Simply adopting the practices of a management reform to meet some requirement without really using the information to influence decisionmaking.
The problem with GPRA and PART is that they are enterprise wide reforms which try to change how a large set of diverse organizations manage. This presents unique difficulties when trying to design and implement such a performance regime. What if we had a smaller scale example to view, one only concerned with a single service area? A recent study of a state wide performance measurement program conducted by the National Center for Public Performance gives us an opportunity to see if such endeavors can succeed.
In 2016, we were commissioned to review an annual performance report that a state department of health requires each local health department in that state to complete. This annual report consists of around 175 questions coverings most activities conducted by local health departments.
The stated goals of the program are as follows:
The program we evaluated was the second iteration, a previous form of the annual data collection system had existed for several years prior to our study. The execution of this program, or lack thereof, had left a bad taste in mouths of local health managers. They felt the state neither used the data to inform their decisions, nor did they return any aggregated reports back to the locals. This lack of communication resulted in resentment even after the program had been revised later on. This challenge persisted even in the new version of the program, the state lacked the adequate resources to analyze and disseminate useful information internally and back to the local authorities, thus creating a one way line of communication. It violated a tenant of performance that suggests performance information should create an interactive dialogue between those reporting and those receiving the reports.
Another issue was the information reported wasn’t always relevant to the individual goals and priorities of the reporting organizations. The state has established a strategic plan with certain targets for community wellbeing while at the same time each local jurisdiction had established their own strategic plan. These goal incongruities resulted in a reduction in significance and salience for those being required to submit this data.
Finally, the very nature of public health presents a challenge to linking activities or organizational data to desired outcomes. The effects of a policing intervention can often be observed in a rather short period of time, giving those reporting performance data access to demonstrable results. However, health outcomes can sometimes take years or decades to emerge and this can frustrate anyone attempting to report programmatic data.
Like GPRA and PART, this state-wide performance mandate has its fair share of challenges. However, it provides some good guidance on how we can improve efforts moving forward. Ensuring each stakeholder is involved in the creation of priorities and measures is critical. Additionally, there needs to be a recognition and with standardized information comes a reduction in individual relevance. The true value comes from the organizations aggregating the information. It is the responsibility of the organization mandating the performance information collection to then use data to open a dialogue using that information. Without it, these reforms will either wither away or linger on as just another report managers have to fill out.
Andrew Ballard is the Managing Director of the National Center for Public Performance and is pursuing a PhD at Rutgers University-Newark. [email protected]
Javier Fuenzalida is the Assistant Director of the National Center for Public Performance and a PhD student at Rutgers University-Newark. [email protected]
The National Center for Public Performance (NCPP) at Rutgers University is a research organization devoted to improving productivity in the public sector.