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SKAPE: Research


Skape Meeting : Christina Boswell on Performance Measurement and the Production of Political Trust

Skape Meeting : Christina Boswell on Performance Measurement and the Production of Political Trust
Hosted by: Skape # UoE
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Date and Time
23rd Nov 2016 12:00 - 23rd Nov 2016 13:00
Chrystal Macmillan Building, Room 2.15


It is now widely accepted that performance management – including the use of indicators and targets – creates various distortions and unwanted effects. So what explains the continued appeal and tenacity of performance measurement, despite its evident short-comings? In my new book (currently in progress), I argue that the use of such tools should be understood as a response to a wider problem of political trust: a reluctance to invest authority or resources in others to act on our behalf. The problem of trust manifests itself in two sets of relationships. Firstly in the relationship between politicians and their voters, who are increasingly disillusioned and cynical about politics and politicians. And secondly, in the reluctance of political leaders to trust civil servants and public service providers, whom they are attempting to steer in a context of increased specialisation and complexity. Thus rather than understanding performance measurement as a technique of control at a distance (as much of the public administration literature does), I understand their function as more symbolic: they create an aura of control, assuaging anxieties about steering (Power); and they also promise more rigorous accountability mechanisms designed to counter public scepticism about politics.

But does performance measurement succeed in producing trust? The book explores some of the tensions and paradoxes created by such tools, and especially the use of targets. The adoption of ambitious, public-facing targets can be highly risky for politicians, placing them under heightened political scrutiny and pressure. Since targets tend to codify outputs or outcomes, this pressure is passed on to the public administration involved in delivering the promised outcomes. This can trigger intrusive forms of political intervention, or engender persistent decoupling of rhetoric and practice in organizations. Another anomaly concerns the ways in which ‘publics’ and other audiences perceive targets. While these quantitative tools carry authority in certain settings, they are also frequently treated with scepticism or disdain. Some targets are ignored; others attract huge attention, but much of it cynical. Thus targets can create dysfunctional dynamics. They are marshalled to address problems of trust. Yet they engender forms of scepticism that create the need to mobilise yet more resources to shore up trust.