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Managing Performance in the Public Sector

March 2, 2009
By H. Mosher

Christopher Dorobek, writing in this month's Incoming column, addresses a major question for public managers: Just what is the best way to manage in the public sector? During the 1990s, many government agencies were trying valiantly to put performance standards into place, and took many cues from the private sector. But as Dorobek notes in Ending Government's Private-Sector Envy, government is very different from private industry. He writes:

...There are some inflexible reasons that government performance is so complex. One is the lack of clear ways to measure performance. In the private sector, there is, literally, a bottom line-a profit and loss statement. In the end, that is the grand measure of performance. It is objective, and it can be relentless.

Government agencies and programs do not really have that kind of bottom line. In many ways, that is because the bottom line for most government programs is ... undefined. A case in point is port security. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) task seems clear-cut: Prevent terrorists and criminals from sending dangerous and illegal items into the United States through U.S. ports. That task may seem as simple as black and white, yet many people realize that it actually is a daunting challenge given the thousands of shipping containers that enter the United States each and every day. The DHS could "perform," if security were the only performance criterion, but it would do that by merely shutting down anything from coming into or out of the nation's ports. Or, the DHS could demand that each and every container be inspected before anything enters the country. Of course, that would bring commerce to a virtual halt and send shudders through an already gloomy economy.

So the measurement criterion is changing, and it no longer is black and white. In fact, the task is to determine the right shade of gray.

As Dorobek adds, every watchdog group and Congressional purse-string-holder will want to weigh in once Obama's Chief Performance Officer comes on board. If the private sector models aren't working, where can government managers find a model for performance management that they can depend on? If they have to build it from scratch, what should they incorporate from other models?

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