Colin Talbot’s recent book, Theories of Performance, Organizational and Service Improvement in the Public Domain (Oxford University Press, 2010), offers us a way forward: with better evidence about what works and why, a new approach to performance would improve upon existing models and take full account of public values and the performance regime.
Talbot is professor of public policy and management at the University of Manchester Business School in the U.K. He has consulted widely in several countries, including here in Canada with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat on the development of the Management Accountability Framework (MAF). The book provides a context for MAF, along with other such frameworks from the both the private and public sectors. This alone commends it to the Canadian reader.
The concepts of performance are compared and contrasted. It is a very open approach, presenting a wide range of sources, exposing gaps in knowledge, and asking probing questions. For example, Talbot examines the meaning of the key terms input, output, and outcome by comparing two leading sources: Harry Hatry and the U.K. central and audit agencies. Hatry’s work has been highly influential in the development of performance theory, while the British agencies have issued guidance based on agreed-upon definitions. Talbot found interesting differences between them, an approach that sharpens understanding while revealing confusion and imprecision that needs attention.
The book takes us through the evolution of thinking in the field. Sorting out the enormous variety and scope of the different approaches to performance measurement is one of its best features. Beginning with the focus on organizational effectiveness, we progress through the excellence, quality and culture movement, to the current day profusion of performance models.
Professor Talbot explains the antecedents of MAF, from both the private and public sectors. MAF is a “multidimensional” model; it falls within a family of performance models that include several areas of performance. In this regard it moved beyond models of organizational effectiveness that emphasized a single ultimate criterion, such as productivity. One source was the service quality movement, notably frameworks from the private sector that argued for consideration of “soft” factors, such as skills and values, as well as the “hard” factors of strategy, systems and structures. Much of this thinking was reflected in the Canada Awards for Excellence, another model that inspired MAF.
Talbot looks at the attributes of these frameworks and models. He considers the available evidence about how well they work. Often there is not much to support some of the most important claims. For example, the models often present “enablers” or “drivers,” on the assumption that progress in these areas will produce better results. Yet little has been done by way of validation. Moreover, causal relationships between the components may be implied, but are rarely further explained or supported.
To be fair, Talbot does not examine the various models or frameworks in detail. There are just too many of them. For example, the Five Year Evaluation of the MAF (2008) is not considered.
Talbot recognizes the strengths of performance frameworks. Overall, he sees a progression from one major explanatory variable, to multivariate, and then multi-dimensional models. Yet to come are groupings of multi-dimensional models in an overarching framework. This takes us to the central theme of the book: the importance of public values and the performance regime for such an overarching framework.
While Talbot lists “values” as one of the areas that most frequently appear in performance frameworks, the question of public value is different. It is who values what kind of performance and why, and it clearly affects the way facts are interpreted. In this regard, Talbot examines several types of theories, but finds few answers in the available research and evidence.
The performance regime refers to how the governance of public agencies, through institutions and interventions, shape performance. Talbot usefully maps the institutional landscape, and catalogues the approaches that have emerged, ranging from capability reviews to competitive mechanisms. As with values, he finds a lack of empirical work on what actually happens in the interaction between performance regimes and public agencies.
Professor Talbot’s work is well worth the read.