With the current reality of deficit reduction, cost cutting and overall cost constraints, are senior public sector managers still committed to measuring and managing performance? We asked Murray Kronick, the co-president of the Performance and Planning Exchange (PPX), and a principal with Interis Consulting in Ottawa, to ask four experienced practitioners for their views on this topic. They are: Robert Shepherd, associate professor in the School of Public Policy & Administration at Carleton University; Lawrence Baschak, senior analyst with the Strategic Planning and Performance Improvement Branch in the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment; Gregory Richards, professor of Performance Management at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa; and Art Stewart, management consultant, retired senior executive from Treasury Board Secretariat and a Board Member of PPX. Here are their responses, edited for length.
What is the current state of performance management in the public sector?
Robert Shepherd: First, in most public services in Canada, performance management and measurement have been accepted by elected officials and senior public servants as a way to understand whether programs are working as intended, and whether the results that are being generated can be attributed in some limited way to public intervention. Second, public bureaucracies have committed to improving overall accountability systems, including the use of performance management, as a way to continuously improve planning, budgeting, human resources, procurement and expenditure management.
Lawrence Baschak: Performance management in the Saskatchewan public sector continues to evolve. In addition to annual strategic planning and reporting back on the results and performance achieved, ministries are now working toward greater effectiveness and efficiency by moving to management systems that focus on continuous improvement through a plan-do-check-act cycle, adopting a Lean culture, reviewing their core programs, and finding ways to better serve customers.
Gregory Richards: Most public sector regimes have adopted some form of PM framework: MRRS in Canada, New Public Management in the U.K., and the Common Assessment Framework in Europe, for example. So overall, I think most public sector organizations know how to do planning and performance measurement. The question now is how to move from performance measurement to performance management: that is, what do we do with the measures?
Art Stewart: I think in terms of seven key attributes of a good results measurement regime: leadership/culture, clear accountability, client focus, alignment with strategic direction, credible performance information, implementation and capacity. All have shown overall improvement in the last decade or so, including as a result of a greater legislative, policy, and practical focus on performance, accountability, and results at the government-wide, departmental and individual employee levels within the public sector.
Has performance management turned into a “box-checking” exercise for the benefit of central agencies or are organizations really managing by results?
Shepherd: Performance management is multi-faceted, and drawing any one conclusion about its usage may be unwise. There are those scholars who make the claim that power has shifted to the centre thereby observing that central agencies far too often drive the management agenda for accountability rather than considering departmental program performance. In this respect, there is a risk that systems such as performance measurement may be too focused on supporting management accountability through such tools as the Management Accountability Framework. There must always be a balance between the concerns for managing for results, and accountability for resources usage.
Baschak: The Ministry of Environment’s recently adopted results-based (RBR) approach for environmental regulation has a focus on desired outcomes instead of a prescriptive “permitting” system. When fully implemented, RBR will include a revised legal framework, the Saskatchewan Environmental Code, enhanced compliance and enforcement tools (including audits), and improved service delivery. An example is the BHP Billiton Jansen potash mine, which was approved by the ministry in just seven months. Historically, this process would have taken 12 to 18 months.
Richards: Some departments are working toward using performance measures to think through how to better improve what they are doing. Others are stuck in the reporting phase. We need to consider that many different types of public sector organizations exist, so what works well for one might not for others. They all have to report to central agencies: “box checking” is part of being in government. But those who really get performance management have been able to use the measures to report as well as to improve performance.
Stewart: Good evidence-based decision-making requires a focus on the key results that matter most – credible performance information – and thoughtful analysis to help explain what we see. And the foregoing won’t matter much if senior management isn’t committed to using performance information, whether it shows good or less good results. In the current environment of fiscal restraint, I’m concerned that there may be less interest, time and capacity devoted to it, in favour of, for example, meeting targets for expenditure reduction.
Are performance measures primarily focusing on counting activities or on measuring outcomes/results?
Shepherd: As a condition of most funding, program managers must prepare a “Performance Measurement Framework.” This tool requires that departments explain to central agencies how they intend to measure program relevance and success. Clearly, managers will want to focus on their particular conception of relevance and success. More often than not, success is determined by the effectiveness of program activities. To the extent that programs succeed or fail on the basis of activities, it is no surprise that managers will want to understand the causal linkages between these and observed results.
Baschak: Outcome-focused regulation requires that environmental outcomes must be central to our planning and in assessing our performance. The ministry already measures a number of indicators of environmental condition, such as air and water quality, in the government’s biennial State of the Environment Report, and provides guidance to staff for reporting on results. The new regulatory approach will build on this, including the implementation of service quality standards and measures to improve service delivery.
Richards: Where departments/agencies have visible outcomes, I do see them measuring and tracking, at least at the output stage. The challenge, I think, is that for most agencies a hierarchy of outcomes exist. So the way in which “results” are defined, that is, where in the outcome hierarchy we hold ourselves accountable, has a great influence on what the department/agency is able to measure.
Stewart: Both remain important and can still be further improved. The federal government’s MRRS/PAA policy regime has helped significantly to focus on results, performance and related resources across and within departments in a more systematic and balanced manner. A key challenge that still needs attention in my view is to develop the methodologies, collect (longer term) data, and establish accepted analytical approaches necessary to measure (and account for) performance at the level of strategic outcomes.
What are the key things that organizations have to do to get performance management right?
Shepherd: First, some consideration must be given to understanding the tool from a program, initiative (combination of several programs) and policy level. The nature of performance management will vary at each of these levels and uses in terms of purpose, definition of measures and application. Second, organizational planning activities should be linked to performance management. That is, organizational responsibilities can be mapped through a vehicle such as the PAA, and performance management constructed in a way that is aimed at understanding and linking both program and organizational results performance. Third, organizations can distinguish between different uses, including central agency concerns for resources usage, senior management concerns for organizational performance though such vehicles as the annual performance report, program managers’ concerns for improvement, and evaluation’s concerns for relevance, success and alternative approaches. Performance management need not take a one-size-fits-all approach.
Baschak: Organizations need to focus their efforts on providing clear expectations as shown in results-based regulation, building capacity for managing by results, managing change to create a performance culture, and using performance information rather than just producing it.
Richards: First would be integration. It does not have to be done structurally, but it’s easy to see that performance measurement and evaluation sit on a connected continuum. Second is to consider the human aspect. To use measures effectively calls for the right leadership and management skills as well as an organizational culture aligned with achievement. Third is to have a plan for PM and the results of the effort should be evaluated. In other words, we should define our expectations for PM considering the context of the organization, then be reasonable about how we assess the impact of our PM activities.
Stewart: Senior management’s commitment and leadership to establish and drive a focus on results measurement and its use at all levels of the organization is key to getting it right. That means making results and performance a regular part of management agendas and discussion – from the deputy head to the supervisor’s table – and not just a part of formal, required reporting to external parties, but also in regular program updates and progress reports. Second, there must be adequate investment in knowledge, training, people, technology and processes needed to support results measurement. This does not necessarily mean a large corporate unit is needed; results measurement works best when it is understood and forms an integral part of all employees’ responsibilities.