Commentary: “Public Value” and the Measurement of Government Performance: The Shift to Subjective Metrics

Published date01 July 2014
Date01 July 2014
Richard L. Brodsky served as a
member of the New York State Assembly
for 28 years. He is currently in the private
practice of law, serves as senior fellow in
New York University’s Wagner Graduate
School of Public Service, and is senior fellow
at Demos, a public policy organization com-
mitted to a more inclusive democracy.
478 Public Administration Review • July | August 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 4, pp. 478–479. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12234.
Richard L. Brodsky
National Arbitration and Mediation Inc.
Mark H. Moore certainly of‌f ers insights of
intrinsic worth into the elements of demo-
cratic theory that modulate the relationship
between the public and government institutions in
his article “Public Value Accounting: Establishing the
Philosophical Basis.” At the heart of the search for
public value as a measure of the success or failure of
government is a conscious, if unspoken, ef‌f ort to shift
from objective to subjective metrics. Ef‌f orts to elevate
value-based, democratic expressions and evaluations
seem self-evidently good.  ey are not hard to visual-
ize in an academic setting. But American political
institutions have an embedded preference for objective
standards that will not easily be replaced.
is entrenched preference is most visible in two
areas: the long-standing use of gross domestic product
(GDP) as the default measurement of performance
and the relatively newer insistence on standardized
testing for the evaluation of educational performance
by teachers.
With respect to GDP, it has been and remains the
preeminent metric, with direct consequences for
programmatic decisions and enormous political
consequences in elections. Its limitations are obvious
and were even acknowledged by its intellectual parent,
Simon Kuznets, who said in 1934, “ e welfare of a
nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement
of national income as def‌i ned by the GDP” (Kuznets
1934, 7).
ere has been broad dissatisfaction with GDP as a
measure of government success. It ignores distribu-
tional consequences and leaves value-based policies
with no competing argument. How should we assess
the success of the food stamp program, for example?
In the face of such concerns, a number of academic
and state-based ef‌f orts are being made to substitute a
Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which assesses “26
variables related to economic, social, and environmen-
tal progress. Economic indicators include inequality
and the cost of unemployment. Environmental
indicators include the cost of water pollution, air
pollution, climate change, wetlands depletion, forest
cover change, and non-renewable energy resources.
Social indicators include the value of housework,
higher education and volunteer work as well as the
cost of commuting and crime” (Daly and McElwee
To an extent, GPI does objectify what we would
otherwise think of as value-based metrics by costing
out things such as pollution and climate change. But
it indicates that issues as f‌l uid as inequality, home-
making, volunteer work, and use of renewable energy
sources also have a place in the ef‌f ort to judge the
success of government programs.  e movement is
small but building, and it will likely be the practi-
cal expression of the concern for value-based metrics
asserted by Moore.
e bitter divisions about standardized testing in
education have pitted policy makers, elected of‌f‌i cials,
teachers, parents, and schools against each other in
many states. Enshrined in law in the Race to the Top
program and the No Child Left Behind Act, standard-
ized testing has been subject to scathing criticism, led
by noted educator Diane Ravitch. “Evaluating teach-
ers in relation to student test scores will have many
adverse consequences. . . more time and resources
will be devoted to raising scores on these tests.  e
curriculum will be narrowed even more. . . because of
the link between wages and scores.  ere will be even
less time available for the arts, science, history, civics,
foreign language, even physical education. Teachers
will teach to the test.  ere will be more cheating,
more gaming the system” (Ravitch 2010).
Even as parents withdraw their children from the
testing regimen, no value-based countermetric has
emerged as an alternative. Use of portfolios, grades,
and other evaluation techniques for students and
teachers does not have the simplicity and clarity of test
“Public Value” and the Measurement of Government
Performance: e Shift to Subjective Metrics

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