Making Sense of Performance Regimes: Rebalancing External Accountability and Internal Learning

How to account for the ubiquitous presence of public sector performance regimes given evidence that such regimes have failed to achieve their promises? We argue that this paradox perseveres partly because the dominant doctrinal approach – justifying what we label as the external accountability regime – responds to a real need for political account giving, but also partly because alternative frameworks that can satisfy that need have been slow to emerge. We describe a fundamental mismatch between external accountability regimes and the basic characteristics of the public sector. As a result, performance regimes are often experienced as externally imposed standards that encourage passivity, gaming, and evasion, and will therefore never be able to achieve performance gains that depend on purposeful professional engagement. Rather than simply criticizing external accountability regimes, we offer an alternative framework better informed by the empirical study of performance regimes. The proposed alternative internal learning regime makes the case for extensive professional involvement in the development and interpretation of goals. This type of regime offers not just a framework to inform the design of performance regimes, but also a prospective research agenda to address how performance regimes affect motivation, behavior, and public sector outcomes.


  • Series: La Follette School Working Paper No. 2017-001
  • Authors: Mads Leth Jakobsen, Martin Bækgaard, Donald Moynihan, Nina van Loon

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