Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Performance Assessment in the Public Sector – a Land of Failed Kings

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 8:50 AM
Pearson I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Patricio Rojas, Universidad de los Andes
This exploratory study aims to provide new concepts and contribute with theory extension regarding the dynamics of assessment in the public sector.
The paper begins by presenting the paradoxical situation of governments that even though they are accomplishing their electoral promises and have their economic and social indicators at their best, also have their approval poll ratings plummeted to record lows.
To address this paradox the paper draws on two case studies to illustrate the enhanced framework that results from combining concepts from the Interpretation literature about the cognitive process by which people attach meaning to information, with the contextual political dynamics described by the Public Sector literature.
The field data collected and analyzed in this study suggest that the lack of positive response of citizens to their governments’ achievements would be partly explained by the “Credibility Threshold”, that is a non-linear relationship between the performance measures reported by public agencies and how these measures are interpreted by the general public. The “Credibility Threshold” is a side effect of the “confidence gap”, that is the declining confidence shown by citizens in their political, social, and economic institutions.
The effects of the “Credibility Threshold” are not limited to politically elected officers, but also affect public agencies carrying out the most diverse types of services and activities.

The paper suggests that excess of enthusiasm in claiming that electoral promises and government targets have been met is likely to be received by citizens with skepticism instead of with satisfaction. Government triumphalism provides an opportunity to opposition for highlighting the weakest aspects of performance, and can create a backfire effect through which success claims are received with increasing disbelief by people who may even consider them outright lies. Indeed, even in cases where public officers can recount extensive evidence in support of their success claims, they are likely to experience the same fortune as Nuñez, Wells’ (1904) failed “King of the Blind”. In Wells’ story, Nuñez, the one seeing man in a Country of Blind people begins reciting to himself "In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King", assuming he could rule blind people. But finally he found himself at a disadvantage in relation to people whose lives were ordered on the basis of just four senses.
In a similar fashion, Public Officers may became “failed Kings”. The average citizen usually has no way of distinguishing between truthful and deceitful claims, and in addition is affected by the cognitive biases described by the Interpretation literature. Hence, even if Public Officers have evidence supporting that targets have been met, what matters is whether people believe or dismiss success claims. Citizens’ skepticisms regarding success claims and the generalized “confidence gap” suggest that Public Officers with superior information may be simply not believed.
As a result, claims of accomplishment by public agencies can be received with skepticism by the general public, and doubts would start to vanish only when agencies’ level of achievement is such that it is difficult to dismiss.