Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Moynihan to give keynote; performance management study published

Moynihan to give keynote; performance management study published

La Follette School Director and Professor Don Moynihan will give a keynote presentation at the 10th annual Public Performance Conference in Boston on September 29. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Shelley Metzenbaum of the Volcker Alliance also will give keynotes.

The conference is presented by the National Center for Public Performance at the Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration. The policy and practice advocacy organization promotes the use of data and performance management to improve government operations. It also offers a wide array of resources and helps area governments with policy analysis and performance oriented reforms. 

Moynihan has presented his research on public sector performance to policymakers at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. His book, The Dynamics of Performance Management: Constructing Information and Reform, was named best book by the Academy of Management's Public and Nonprofit Division.

The October 2017 issue of Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institution, also features an article by Moynihan and Poul Nielsen of the University of South Denmark. In the article, Romanticizing Bureaucratic Leadership, they examine the role of partisan beliefs and a leadership attribution approach to problem-solving by trial-and-error methods.

Their study reflects elected officials’ recent efforts to use performance measures for holding public employees more directly accountable. Moynihan and Nielsen argue that the potential for performance data to inform a rational feedback loop for accountability purposes is undercut by human preferences, beliefs, and biases. Using a survey of local Danish elected officials, they point to two such biases: political ideology and a romance of leadership.

“Conservatives tend to believe that individuals, rather than social factors, determine outcomes,” said Moynihan, “so we predicted that more conservative officials would be more likely to believe that bureaucrats–in our case school principals–were personally responsible for whether the school was doing well or not on test scores. And that's exactly what the data showed. This implies that conservatives and liberal politicians start with different conceptions of what is fair for public accountability, with conservatives more likely to seek to reward and punish public officials.”

Moynihan and Nielsen also found that when school performance on test scores was very low or very high, elected officials were more likely to believe that the school principal was driving the outcome.

“This is a well-established finding from the study of private organizations–it’s called a romance of leadership effect–but largely ignored in public sector studies,” said Moynihan. “Organizations are complex things, and to understand their outcomes we look for some relatable explanation, the most obvious of which is the leader. That desire to find an explanation for organizational outcomes is most intense in cases when things are unusual, such as conditions of high or low organizational performance. In such cases, we want to give credit or blame, and so we tend to assume the leader is the one who deserves the plaudits or the criticism.”