Never Change a Winning Policy? Public Sector Performance and Politicians' Preferences for Reforms

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
206 Public Administration Review • March | April 2018
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 2, pp. 206–216. © 2017 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12824.
Rune J. Sørensen is professor of
economics at the Norwegian Business
School (BI) in Oslo. His interests include
public administration, political economy,
and health economy. His research has been
published in the
British Journal of Political
Science, Public Administration, European
Journal of Political Research, Journal
of Human Resources, Journal of Public
Economics, Journal of Health Economics,
Health Economics
Benny Geys is professor of economics
at the Norwegian Business School (BI)
in Oslo and research professor at Vrije
Universiteit Brussel in Brussels. His research
focuses on political accountability, (local)
public policy, and civic engagement. Some
of his work has appeared in the
Journal of the European Economic
Journal of Urban Economics
Organization Studies
Leadership Quarterly
Public Opinion Quarterly, European Journal
of Political Research
Public Administration,
British Journal of Sociology
Abstract: Despite the increasing stress on performance in public sector organizations, there is still little empirical
evidence on whether—and if so, how—politicians respond to performance information. This article addresses this
research gap by linking registry statistics on school performance in Norway s 428 municipalities with data from an
information experiment embedded in a survey of local politicians. Findings show that school performance bears
only a weak relationship to politicians preferences for resource-related reforms, but it strongly affects preferences for
governance-related reforms, indicating the importance of accounting for heterogeneity across alternative types of
(school) reforms. Moreover, local politicians are, on average, well informed about school performance. This reflects
the force of local inhabitants high infor mation level on politicians accountability.
Evidence for Practice
Performance information influences reform preferences and can be crucial for politicians to support structural
policy changes.
Politicians are well informed about the relative performance of local schools, which suggests that performance
statistics do not disappear into a “black hole.”
Indicators of school performance have little bearing on politicians preferences for resource-related reforms
but strongly affect their position regarding governance-related reforms. This has direct implications for the
design and focus of performance management strategies.
Benny Geys
Rune J. Sørensen
Norwegian Business School BI
Never Change a Winning Policy? Public Sector Performance
and Politicians Preferences for Reforms
“We shall describe as a ‘bureaucratic system of
organization’ any system of organization where
the feedback process … does not function well,
and where consequently there cannot be any quick
readjustment of the programs of action in view of
the errors committed.”
—Michel Crozier, e Bureaucratic Phenomenon
(1964, 186–87)
A s indicated by Michel Crozier s description of
bureaucratic systems, public sector
organizations are often assumed to be
characterized by substantial rigidity. This may leave
little potential for the increasing stress on performance
in public sector organizations to trigger reforms,
as a rigid organization “cannot correct its behavior
by learning from its errors” (Crozier 1964 , 187).
Moreover, organizational learning can only arise
when performance information is actively sought and
used by policy makers, and the extent to which this
happens remains debated (Andersen and Jakobsen
2017 ; Andersen and Moynihan 2016 ; Bjørnholt,
Bækgaard, and Houlberg 2016 ; Ter Bogt 2004; for
a review, see Kroll 2015 ). From an empirical and
policy perspective, this raises the important question
of whether—and, if so, how—policy makers want
to initiate policy reforms in response to performance
Most existing work on the extent and antecedents of
performance information use is based on self-reports
(Kroll 2015 ). It addresses whether and how frequently
actors take into account performance information
(e.g., Moynihan and Pandey 2010 ) or how important
they think such information is to their decisions
(e.g., Askim 2007 ). More recent scholarship also
investigates how observed performance in the public
sector affects preferences for, and the probability of,
policy reforms. For instance, Salge ( 2011 ) shows
that performance problems positively affect the
search for innovations in a sample of 154 public
hospitals. Nielsen ( 2014 ) similarly finds that Danish
school principals prioritize issues with observable
underperformance when performance is weak, while
Nicholson-Crotty, Nicholson-Crotty, and Fernandez
( 2017 ) show that performance affects the level of
risk-taking by employees in U.S. federal agencies.
Finally, Askim, Johnsen, and Christophersen highlight
that performance information obtained through

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