It is well known that there has been something of a “performance movement” (as Beryl Radin has called it) in western countries in recent years. (I have written an account of UK developments for the World Bank myself here).
There are many reasons cited for this movement, but the one that usually catches the interest of the political classes is that they can demonstrate greater accountability and show their ability to deliver by performance monitoring and improvement and thereby enhance their credibility and (say it quietly) their electability.
But what if that is not true, or at least not in any simple way?
There is some evidence – and I don’t want to exaggerate this, it is only suggestive at this stage – that there is a more complex relationship between performance and electoral pay-offs in western countries than one might instinctively expect.
Research conducted on English local government is very suggestive (Greasly and John, 2010). Studying the relationship between the performance of local governments and their subsequent electoral success (or lack of) researchers found a curious asymmetry in the relationship – bad performance led to political penalties (incumbents tended to loose elections) but good performance did not lead to political pay-offs – above a certain level performance seemed to be discounted by electors.
This result reminded me of the research on ‘happiness’ levels in society which suggests there is a ‘plateau’ in economic advancement where above a certain level, further gains in wealth do not produce increases in happiness, which tends to level-off (see The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett).
And it prompts the obvious question – is there a parallel here with citizen’s satisfaction with the performance of public services?
This may be a case where a Western innovation – massively increased performance reporting on public services – is actually likely to have greater political impact in emerging economies than it does in the west. In the hypothesis that there is a sort of ‘hygiene factor’ at work and that gains in public service performance can have big payoffs in developing economies, it is potentially important lever for change which political elites could easily be convinced to buy into.
Of course, the converse is true for the west – whatever other good reasons there might be for the performance movement – and I for one think there such good reasons (see my latest book ‘Theories of Performance’) – political advantage would clearly be a fairly weak one.
Stephen Greasley, Peter John. (2010) “Does Stronger Political Leadership have a Performance Payoff? Citizen Satisfaction in the Institutional Redesign of Sub-central Governments in England.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory