Interview: Wouter Van Dooren & Steven Van de Walle About Performance

vandooren-vandewalleFollowing the publication of their book  “Performance in the Public Sector”, we interviewed Mr. Wouter Van Dooren  Mr. Steven Van de Walle on what Performance is and why it is so important.

IIAS: How were introduced the Performance issues in the public sector and why is it important?

Wouter Van Dooren : Historically, the introduction of modern performance thinking can be traced back to the US cities (in particular New York) in the early 20th century. Interestingly, the main driving actors were research bureaus and social movements that acted in the periphery of the public sector. The history of performance in the 20th century was mainly a characterised by a gradually more widespread and intensive use of performance information in all corners of the public sphere.

S. Van de Walle : Performance issues are not at all new, but their appearance and scope have changed. Every organisation has some kind of performance measurement and management system. In some cases, these systems operate in a very informal and unstructured way; In others they consist of formal and structured measurement and management systems. Every organisation needs information about what it is doing.

IIAS: Who are the main actors of Performance? What will be their respective role in ensuring performance in the public sector?

WVD : In principle, all actors have a role to play. The core is the public bureaucracy that has to make it happen. I can’t think of organisations that in some way or another should not reflect on their performance. Other actors such as media and interest groups should require that government performs. A very important responsibility however lies in the hands of politicians who are often not sufficiently involved in performance issues.

SVW : Performance professionals are skilled in the use and management of indicators, management information systems and league tables. Yet, performance measurement should not just be a tool in the hands of these performance professionals. All actors in an organisation should have some basic knowledge about performance systems. Leaders and politicians are also important, because they are the ones who should transform lists of indicators and numbers into a clear story and a mission for further improvement.

IIAS : Could you provide us with your view on the role of the citizens and the customers in the Public Sector Performance evaluation?

WVD : Citizen evaluation of performance is a tough nut to crack. Are citizen’s sufficiently equipped to evaluate often complex public matters? In addition, don’t we risk mainly obtaining a biased view of the participation elite (schooled, middle aged, man)? On the other hand, there may be more value in the gut feeling of citizens and customers than professionals like to believe. I would say that it can be valuable, but handle with care.

SVW : There is a trend towards making performance information public and towards the production of league tables. Citizens should have some input in the development of some indicators, but we shouldn’t overestimate their role or their interest in performance evaluation. Citizens’ views of public services are just one aspect of performance evaluation. Performance indicators should first and foremost function as an internal learning instrument. A too dominant focus on external functions of performance information may be counterproductive and is to be avoided.

IIAS : You both are academics, how does the study of Performance translate in the professional field?

WVD : In the professional field, there will be a shift from innovations in measurement and management tools, to the actual use of these performance insights. We can no longer assume that performance insights will be put at work. The economic crisis will reinforce this trend. The financial room to manoeuvre and to experiment with new measurement and management tools is no longer present. Performance initiatives will have to demonstrate that they yield a return – hence a focus on use. The Obama administration explicitly put the use of performance information on the agenda as an important management challenge.

SVW : Academics have to assist practitioners in the development of performance awareness, and need to help them to build the skills they need to use performance measurement systems. At the same time, they have to keep them from taking performance systems too seriously. An overly optimistic and modernist belief in performance measurement is as dangerous for public organisations as the total rejection of performance measurement.

IIAS : Could you provide us with an example of Performance measurement in Belgium’s Public Sector?

WVD : The Belgian public sector does not have a performance measurement reputation. Altogether, the number of international delegations visiting Belgian practices remains relatively small. However, a lot of measurement is going on. In particular some large agencies have sophisticated measurement systems. It is a decentralised model however, with few government wide requirements. One advantage of this approach is the relatively high ownership of measurement systems by managers.

IIAS : What are the prospects for investigation as to what research topic, what will be the future of research on Performance measurement?

WVD : It seems to me that the use of performance information, the topic of our book, will remain on the agenda for the next years. In the next years, our EGPA study group will focus more strongly on the definition of performance. What does it mean to perform? What social mechanisms determine this image of performance?

SVW : Research is likely to shift away from technical studies of performance measurement systems towards studies that focus on how performance systems emerge, change and operate. Organisation theory can teach us a great deal about performance measurement systems, and we should look at them as organisational phenomena. A second field that is worth exploring is that of definitions of performance: how do actors and organisations decide what counts as good performance and what doesn’t? How do they decide what is worth measuring and what isn’t? Thirdly, the increasing availability of performance information is creating a wealth of datasets for public administration scholars to use. This data will certainly contribute to a growth of empirical work in the discipline.

Our book Performance information in the public sector: How it is used (Palgrave 2008) describes some of these trends.