How do Elected Officials Evaluate Performance? Goal Preferences, Governance Preferences and the Process of Goal Reprioritization

Performance data allows politicians to exert accountability over public organizations, even as ideological biases can affect how they interpret such data. However, we know little about how motivated decision-makers prioritize goals when facing multiple pieces of contradictory performance data that reflect the competing goals of public services. Such goal conflict is an inherent aspect of public management. To understand its implications for the use of performance data use we develop a theory of goal reprioritization. We start by assuming that elected officials have preferences between specific policy goals, and about governance processes – such as a preference for public or private service provision. When elected officials face contradictory pieces of performance data, governance preferences drive performance evaluations to the point that they are willing to reweight their goal preferences to minimize cognitive dissonance. We offer experimental evidence of this process, showing that elected officials asked to evaluate school performance reprioritize between two distinct policy goals for schools – test scores and student well-being – to fit with their governance preferences. Reprioritization is an attractive strategy since it allows elected officials to claim they are using performance data, even as underlying governance preferences lead them to set aside the evaluative goal-based criteria by which they would otherwise make performance evaluations. In other words, preferences concerning the nature of government can trump goal preferences when decision-makers use performance data.


  • Series: La Follette School Working Paper No. 2017-005
  • Authors: Julian Christensen, Casper Mondrup Dahlmann, Asbjørn Hovgaard Mathiasen, Donald P. Moynihan, Niels Bjørn Grund Petersen

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