Measurement in Public Administration Administrative Theory & Praxis

Administrative Theory & Praxis

The old saying goes: what gets measured gets done. In public administration, New Public Management-based reforms put the spotlight directly on finding, measuring, and sustaining efficiencies in service delivery. Those movements shifted the values of government from effectiveness to market-driven efficiencies resulting in an increase in privatization and contracting out. Today, the field examines measurement in many ways: performance management, behavioral public administration, replication, data transparency. To be clear, none of these are bad – there is, though, another side. We can look at all these trends critically to see implications of these on the practice of public administration.

In this virtual special issue, we feature some articles related to this broad topic. Williams (2002) offers an interesting history of the performance movement in the US. He traces early reform movements through social and political contexts to underscore how performance as an ideal gripped the field.

Timney (2001) challenges traditional economic theory by focusing more on the eco- in economics. She poses instead a theory based on ecosystem thinking, seeing the whole rather than only a part. Economics, then, becomes more social instead of purely rational (or as rational as it can be).

Burnier (2018) takes a similar approach, offering instead a critical examination of the performance movements themselves. For her, performance management is just that – a performance. It is an expression and reflection of public values rather than, again, only economic values.

In his article, Heidelberg (2018) takes a different approach to critiquing the performance enterprise. He challenges the notions of impersonal decision making and measurability. Relying on epistemological tensions, he contests that everything can be measured and examines the implications of thinking that everything indeed can be quantified. Similarly, Stivers (2000) reminds us to include and consider the political when employing any measurement devices. Measurements and data, then, themselves become tools of political manipulation and maneuvering so are not inherently neutral.

Taking a more applied perspective, Drury (2014) relies on her experience as a child welfare caseworker to critique the effects of a measurement culture in the field. She argues that many of the issues she needed to measure in the field were wicked problems that often defied accurate numerical measurement. She advocates for a broader view of performance measurement that takes into account stories managers tell, to borrow Hummel’s phrasing.