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How Performance Management Can Drive Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.  

By Adam Cobb
September 26, 2014

The public sector is accountable to its citizens who, always demanding, have lately become more vocal in their calls for transparency and accountability. This increased scrutiny could be a catalyst for adopting performance management practices that will yield internal and external benefits.

What is transparency and accountability?

According to the Transparency & Accountability Initiative, transparency is the duty of public administration to act “visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability.” It acts in tandem with accountability which ensures that public officials are “answerable for their actions and that there is redress when duties and commitments are not met.”

Can public administration do more with less?

In many cases, demands for transparency and accountability are focused on the use of public funds at the same time that these resources are shrinking. How to do more with less is a quandary that has faced the private sector for many years and some of its human resource solutions are beginning to spill over into public administration. The Aberdeen Group reported in 2012 that 60 percent of public sector organizations cited improving workforce productivity as their top human resource priority. And, as ASPA’s core values state, there is a “requirement for all levels of government to move to performance-based, results-driven management…”  As it has in the private sector, robust performance management practices can drive productivity in public administration.

Creating a culture of transparency and accountability

Cobb septIt is my opinion that external transparency and accountability to the public cannot be achieved without first creating an internal culture of transparency and accountability. Best practices in performance management can take an organization a long way down this road. When the process is well-planned, clearly communicated, embraced by leadership and effectively administered, performance management has a positive impact on productivity, performance, employee engagement and customer relations.

The Transparency & Accountability Initiative describes four stages in an “accountability relationship:” Standard Setting, Investigation, Answerability and Sanction. Although it is referring to the relationship between a public entity and the public, these stages are directly parallel to the human resources performance management process and to the accountability relationship between management and employees. Here is how.

  • Standard setting is the practice of determining performance standards and setting goals by which the performance of the organization, department and individuals will be measured. In a transparent and accountable performance management process, individual performance standards directly relate to the skills, abilities and behaviors that support the mission and goals as well as the culture of the organization.

For example, in a public-facing agency such as motor vehicles, all employees might be expected to adhere to a performance standard of excellent customer service. During the planning phase, this standard would be clearly defined in terms of the observable behaviors expected of various roles within the agency, such as “answers the telephone before the third ring.”

Based on the performance standards as well as priorities and objectives of the department and organization, managers and employees should set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely) goals for the workgroup or individual.  Setting relevant goals provides management and employees a transparent line of site to the larger organization and enables them to focus their efforts on what matters most, thereby reducing waste.

  • Investigation is the process of assessing the extent to which the organization, department or individual is meeting the standards and achieving the goals set for them. Because the standards, goals and metrics of measurement have already been set and communicated, managers can learn to observe and measure objectively and fairly, based on criteria that will drive improved performance. In a high-functioning performance management system, investigation is an ongoing process.
  • Answerability corresponds to the feedback managers provide their employees informally through coaching and formally through performance reviews or appraisals. Ideally this is an open, participatory process through which managers engage employees to discuss their progress on the previously set standards, including what is going well and what can be improved. It’s important that managers understand how to have real performance conversations with their employees. Often times this requires a culture shift. People are now evaluated on performance rather than just punching the clock. It is critical that we give managers the tools and training so they know how to conduct effective performance reviews.
  • Sanction corresponds to the consequences set for levels of performance, whether positive or negative, bringing teeth to accountability. Many organizations are moving to a pay-for-performance system in which employees are compensated based on their performance. This is a powerful mechanism for improving performance but must be managed carefully, especially in light of recent public criticism around annual bonuses. Compensation is not the only tool available to managers. Simple praise, as well as awarding additional responsibility, autonomy and development, is a strong motivator for high performance.

Leaders and human resources professionals within public administration can gain much by adopting best performance management practices that will help them improve organizational and individual productivity, enhance morale and build a culture of transparency and accountability.


Adam Cobb is a certified human capital strategist with experience in helping public sector organizations adopt performance management solutions to drive better business results. Cobb is a regional manager of Halogen’s appraisal software

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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