PM – A historical perspective: Part 2 – New Myths?

The possible emergence of new myths concerning PM feels at first counter-intuitive: The imperative of number crunching, output-orientation and economic thinking seems universalized and impossible to contest. Still, different authors share the assumption that the golden age of purely cost-oriented performance measurements has come to an end: In her study about PM within the public sector in Germany Greiling (2005:562) states that “The first euphoria is replaced by a discussion about the effectiveness of performance measurement systems. Measuring for measurements’ sake is no longer a value in itself”. Likewise Politt et al. (2007:6) claim that the “tide may be beginning to turn” and find that even “forerunners of NPM are now taking a step back, or (partly) reversing NPM reforms, as they have become aware of unintended and undesirable consequences” (ibid.).

Modell goes beyond the diagnosis that the times of a wholehearted enthusiasm about PM has ended and outlines a potential new myth that, for him, is to replace the old one. He calls visions and understandings that differ from the mainstream and institutionalized vision “ghost myths” (2004:43). They circulate around within an organizational setting, are shared by some of the actors but haven’t become (yet) organizational normality. For him, a ghost myth that is about to gain power and is to be applied in the public sector is the PM-instrument of the Balanced Scorecard. Just like the old myth of economic and managerial thinking this new myth has its origins in the private economy: “whilst originally developed in the private sector, there are indications that this model is beginning to diffuse to public sector organizations.” (ibid.).

So what brought this new myth into existence and what it is about? Efficiency-based PM has, according to Modell, suffered multiple “crises” (ibid.:44) and is “under increasing attack” (ibid.:43), not just from within organization and the resistance of professional groups such as doctors, nurses and teachers but also from outside. The scientific debate revolves around the question of what is measured: One position claims that “the one-sided reliance on financial and other types of efficiency-based PM has largely failed” (ibid.) and thus call for broadening what is measured; others feel that public sector organizations have “measured too many things and the wrong things” (ibid.) and thus call for more strategic, goal-oriented measuring. The Balanced Scorecard on the other hand is introduced as a strategic (not everything, but only strategically relevant data is collected) and yet multidimensional (more than quantitative data such as quality, competence, client satisfaction etc. is being collected) instrument (cf. ibid.f.). As a model that emphasizes consensus, participation from all organizational levels, clear objectives for what the measuring is used for and that also includes non-financial and qualitative aspects it seems to answer the criticism that has been mentioned within numerous blogposts about the teacher’s experiences.

What I find interesting is the relative absence of more radical critique, the lack of ghost myths closer to Marxist ideas that question the principle of performance in itself. The criticism circles around the data and its measurement, of validity – and thus stays at an operational level. But the normative idea of performance as the means of a fair distribution of status, income and professional development remains unquestioned. The widespread introduction of the Balanced Scorecard definitely would be a change in myths – but a minor one. In theoretical terms it could be defined as frame blending, where old ideas are fusioned with new aspects but where the core idea stays untouched.

Bibliography

Greiling, Dorothea (2005): Performance measurement in the public sector: the German experience. In: International Journal of Productivity and Performance Measurement. Vol. 54, No. 7, pp. 551-567.

Modell, Sven (2004): Performance Measurement Myths in the Public Sector: A Research Note. In: Financial Accountability & Management, 20 (1), p. 39-55.

Pollitt, Christopher/ van Thiel, Sandra/ Homburg, Vincent (2007): New Public Management in Europe. In: Management Review Online, Oct. 2007. Online: repub.eur.nl/pub/11553/BSK-2007-004.pdf

Werner, Miriam/ Cornelissen, Joep P. (2014): Framing and Change: Switching and Blending Frames and their Role in Instigating Institutional Change. Organization Studies, Vol. 35, No. 10, p. 1449-1472.

Picture: CC BY-NC 2.0, Wally Harthorn, Online: http://tinyurl.com/olnvvdz

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One response to “PM – A historical perspective: Part 2 – New Myths?

  1. I believe the rise of NPM in the educational sector – my experience lies mainly with universities in Germany – changed the expectations that are carried towards the involved organizations and also increased the number of organizations that have expectations in the first place. Where in the past budgets weren’t much of an issue, teaching and research were free and mostly unrestricted and university professors and teachers governed themselves, now universities have to account for their (decreasing) budgets, have to teach more students in less time and are more and more governed and restricted by politics and administration.
    Not only did the expactations increase, they also started to contradict themselves. Less money and less time to teach does not work well with the expectation to teach more students than before.
    Also this raises the question of how to assert if an educational organization is working efficiently and according to the oustide expectations.
    From this viewpoint, PM is a possibility and necessity to assess if the organization is working as intended for the “outside world” but also a way for the organization itself to legitimate their actions.
    I see some merits in this, but also a lot of problems (especially in an educational context).
    My main problem is: How do you measure good education? Is it enough to calculate the mean of all grades a student had during his education (admittedly it’s more complex than that) and write that number on a diploma? This is the way it seems to be right now and also more and more emphasis is put on this grade from the wider systems, mainly employers.
    I believe education should be more than that. From my understanding and my self-concept as a university student it is way more important to learn how to learn and think in a (in my case) scientifical way than to learn how to perform in tests. The system right now seems to incentivise the second option. Also a good education sometimes includes failure and learning from this. In a system were every grade counts, failure is not an option.
    PM is a way for universities to show the outside world that they are working as intended and producing “educated” students at a ceratin rate. The problem is, that in my opinion the used measurement tools are not adequate to the task.
    Following your post, a crisis would be needed to change this. Employers would have to realize, that the grades on a diploma they get handed are not an accurate description of the students task. Or pressure on politics would have to grow to a point were a societal discourse can be started.
    If I understand it correctly, Politt et al., Greiling and Modell seem to think, that this process has already begun and that the used PM tools are being revised. At the same time, it sounds as if this “only” means, that the PM tools get more precise.
    I don’t think that this can work in the educational sector, at least not for measuring the students performance. I’m not saying, that measurement in education should be removed completly but I believe that in this case less measurement (especially in the first semesters) could lead to more free and deep learning opportunities for students and a better education overall.

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