California Performance Management Reform

Associate Professor Juliet Musso, Houston Flournoy Professor of State Government, and Research Associate Professor Christopher Weare have been examining the rise of departmental level performance management initiatives in the State of California. Their preliminary findings have been presented at the 2012 Association for Policy Analysis and Management Research meeting and updated findings are to be presented at the 2013 Public Management Research Conference. We discussed with Musso and Weare their research and what the findings could mean.

How did ideas for the study come about? What made you want to write on the topic?

Performance management has had a long and checkered career in public management. The goal of using evidence to measure outcomes and make commensurate performance improvements is laudable and has proven to have results, most notably in cases of the so-called “Performancestat” strategies that include the New York City CompStat program that has been adapted widely by local police departments, and Baltimore’s CitiStat. With these high profile exceptions, the record of success of reform efforts in public agencies has been less than stellar. Critics have identified numerous challenges to the imposition of performance management from centralized positions of authority including information asymmetries between departments and central control agencies, contested and ambiguous program goals, organizational constraints impeding effective managerial control, the inherent difficulties of measurement for many governmental outputs and outcomes, and the checks and balances inherent in the American system of government.

California offers an interesting counter example to the typical, and much criticized, top-down reform model. As the State has experienced multiple failed attempts at systemic reform by two Governors and through the initiative process, middle managers at the departmental level have been initiating smaller scale performance management efforts. This alternative model raises the question whether and to what extent that incremental and disjointed reforms at the agency level can address the critiques of performance management.

How are you studying the performance management at the agency level?

We are employing a qualitative case study approach with embedded units of analysis. The case is the California state government, and the embedded units are agency performance management initiatives within the state. We focus on a cross-case analysis of performance management initiatives undertaken by state agencies engaged in the California Performance Management Council (PMC), a self-chartered group of agency representatives and stakeholders with an interest in performance management in California. From a sampling perspective, these cases constitute a purposive or “smart practices” approach to exploring how agency practices might inform policy development and adaptation.

In each case we explore a number of dimensions to evaluate the degree to which they lead to initiatives that are more useful for agency-level decision makers. Specific questions include:

  1. What types of issues within State government have motivated performance management reforms? Are these statewide concerns or agency level issues?
  2. What is the role of organizational leadership in the implementation of performance management reforms?
  3. What processes are employed to develop performance measures? What types of things are measured and how are they related to agency goals.
  4. For what purposes have performance measures been used?
  5. Overall, what appear to be the implications of these design dimensions for the value of these disjointed and incremental performance management reforms?

At this stage in the research we have interviewed twelve managers and reviewed strategic plans, performance measurement systems, and other documentary evidence from six agencies.

What are the major findings of your research?

Our preliminary findings suggest that effective reform measures can be implemented even in the absence of more comprehensive initiatives emanating from the center. For example, the State Water Resources Control Board has implemented a relatively sophisticated system of assessing both actions taken and water quality targets among its nine regional boards, and has continued to build on and institutionalize its performance management system over several years.

While there has not been strong central leadership support for performance management in California, committed departmental-level leadership can carve out islands of reform. Performance measurement reform appears more workable when initiated at the departmental level because it is more likely to be based on existing data and knowledge and centered on the informational needs of departmental managers. Managers have primarily employed measures to learn how their organization is operating and identify areas of weakness, to assess the work of sub-units, and to promote their efforts to stakeholders.

Nevertheless, even at the agency level performance management initiatives have not escaped all of the criticisms of centralized approaches. Measures tend to focus on inputs and outputs, rather than outcomes, and agencies have struggled to integrate performance measures into resource allocation decisions. Finally, the departmental successes seem to call into question the value of highly synoptic approaches that front-load strategic planning exercises to identify management measures. There appears to be more success when agencies are operating off of strategic plans that are already in place and have widespread support, or if they identify data in hand and in essence “backward map” measurement from actual work. These more incremental approaches appear important in overcoming internal resistance, which leaders uniformly identify as one of the critical challenges to effective performance management reform.