From disco to disco: a reconstruction of 15 years EGPA conferences

This is the idea. With conference venues as lieux de mémoires, this blog reports on the thematic transformation of the EGPA Study Group on Performance in the Public Sector. A more elaborate version, with the names of all the co-chairs of the last three decades, is published in an EGPA anniversary book edited by EGPA president Edoardo Ongaro (with Steven Van de Walle and Jostein Askim). Stories of the other study groups of EGPA are in the same edited volume.

Enough context now. Here we go: from town across town.

POTSDAM 2002: A DINNER-CRUISE ON THE HAVEL LAKES

Beautiful scenery, sunset, food, drinks and more drinks. The marvellous conference dinner in Potsdam was set on a tourboat. The vessel took us to all corners of the Havel lakes. At one point, when dusk turned to nightfall, doubt was cast on whether we would ever make it back to the harbour. Imagine what would happen if we would have to spend the night with the European PA community on a tour boat? A version of the hunger games? We took comfort in the thought that all that matters is trust.

The main question of the Study Group was whether there is a relation between the modernisation of the government, satisfaction of citizens and trust in government. A tough question, but a timely one. At the time, modernising the public sector was seen as a general strategy to restore trust. Yet, the relation between modernisation and trust was theoretically nor empirically supported. This did not prevent many pilot countries within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) from building their modernisation policy on this (often implicit) causal chain: Improved service delivery quality leads to improved satisfaction with public service, and, improved satisfaction with public ser- vices leads to improved trust in government.

LJUBLJANA 2004: SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS

Bled castle is a fortress in a lake at the foothills of the Alps. It is the penultimate setting for a conference dinner. A quick glance on the snow-capped mountains could compensate for any sufferings during the day. A boring paper, a mean discussant or a wrongly interpreted p-value, everything is brought back to true proportions. Back in the conference hotel, we were lodged in suites with a separate living room, a bathroom with wellness facilities and a television set that would not fit into the average room in Paris or London. We could hardly complain about performance; any change would make us worse off. Nonetheless, we devoted three conference days to discussing change, public management reform and performance measurement.

The focus on reform was eminent, but we started to decouple reform and performance measurement. NPM has defined measurement as reform and reform as measurement. We needed to explore performance measurement before and beyond NPM. Is performance management a NPM novelty or did it exist before? What is the history of performance measurement and management? To what degree does public sector reform increase the demand for performance information, and (if yes), what is the nature of the performance information that is needed? Which consequences do public sector reforms have for existing performance measurement and management systems?

MILAN 2006: FACING THE PRESSURE OF THE VIA MONTE MONTE NAPOLEONE

The general theme of the Milan conference was Public Managers Under Pressure: Between Politics, Professionalism and Civil Society. Living up to the expectation of a conference in Milan, the organisers at Bocconi printed “Public Managers Under Pressure” on beautiful, orange bags. While few will dispute the pressure managers are facing, the sight of 500 orange bags negotiating the streets and terraces of Milan in late summer may have given another impression to some.

In 2006, performance measurement had also increasingly come under pressure. Public administrations had been measuring performance for quite some time. But doubts started to creep in. Was all this information actually used by anyone? Maybe performance measurement is mainly a ritualistic routine? Hence the focus on the utilisation of performance information: Who is (not) using performance measurement infor- mation, where, when, why and how?

LEUVEN, 2006: DIVINE INSPIRATION

One of the main highlights of Leuven is the beguinage. The beguines are now gone, but the site is available for conferences. This year, EGPA teamed up with American colleagues from the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) for the Second Transatlantic Dialogue (TAD2). Geert Bouckaert, always open for higher inspiration, organised an organ recital in the church of the Leuven beguinage. The spiritual experience completed when a ray of sunshine put the spotlight precisely on the president of EGPA.

Our Study Group benefited a lot from the Transatlantic Dialogue. The group became more firmly embedded in the broader field of public administration. The workshop themes at the TAD2 were broadly defined and attracted top scholars from both sides of the Atlantic. The themes addressed were performance and performance budgeting, regulation and performance, performance in multi-sector/organisation collaborations, citizen and politician’s perspectives on performance and performance strategies. The TAD was a firm bedrock for our work in the years to come.

SAINT JULIAN’S, MALTA, 2009: WORLDS COLLIDING

Wearing a suit under the Maltese sun, when most people you encounter are heading to the beach in shorts and slippers. Inside the conference venue however, the A/C drove temperatures down to northern European levels. Nothing is what it seems, it seems. So we wondered, what is performance? Who defines performance? And why would anyone do such a thing?

We proposed that public sector performance is a process of social construction and deconstruction. The labels ‘good’ and ‘bad’ performance require interpretation and debate. At the Malta conference, we focussed on the social mechanisms behind the construction of performance in different contexts.

BUCHAREST, 2011: THE BIGGEST CONFERENCE, EVER

Wikipedia claims that the Bucharest conference venue, the Palace of Parliament, is the second largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon), with 84 m height, a floor area of 365,000 m2 and 23 sections. Having a volume of 2,550,000 m3, it is also the third biggest building in the world. Moreover, it is the heaviest building in the world. More numbers: 1100 rooms, 480 chandeliers and 20 km of catacombs. The building exceeds the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza by 2% . No better way to show that numbers are political. In Bucharest, we explored the politics of performance management and measurement, because boasting numbers surely is not only a prerogative of a Romanian dictator.

EDINBURGH 2013: AUSTERITY AND THE DYNAMIC EARTH

The Edinburgh conference was held in a hotel in the heart of the old city: A beautiful hotel with all amenities. The conference dinner was hosted in a futuristic science museum, airy and light, which is called Dynamic Earth.

Besides some statistics on slides, the era of austerity was not exactly a lived experience in Edinburgh. Yet, we felt that we could not miss out on the demand for austerity conferences. For performance management, austerity posed an interesting challenge: Will governments still invest in performance metrics when money is in short supply? Answering this question would give more profound insights into the dynamics of decision-making. With keynotes from Christopher Hood from Oxford and Beryl Radin from Georgetown University, chairs were in short supply in our seminar room. Yet, no austerity measures were enforced upon the other groups.

MILAN 2015: SNOW

In February 2015, the EGPA Study Group joined forces with Network of Institutes and Schools of Public Administration in Central and Eastern Europe (NISPAcee) and Bocconi University for a Trans-European Dialogue (TED). Jarmo Vakkuri from Tampere University stepped in with myself as EGPA PSG2 co-chair. Aleksander Aristovnik from Ljubljana University and Gyorgy Hajnal from Corvinus Budapest represented NISPAcee.

And it was snowing! That is not what we northerners associate with Italy. Slightly underdressed, we boarded the train from Malpensa to the city centre. The next day, the snow was slowly transgressing into cold, melting rain. The new Bocconi campus offered some refuge. We should have learned from one of the finest forecasting models available to us: the weather report. But can we learn from performance indicators? That was the theme of the TED.

In this TED, we studied this proposition that with growing evidence of its shortcomings, performance management may find itself at the crossroads. The engineer’s logic —set targets, measure attainment and punish or reward— has reached its limits. The world of public administration is way too complex for that. An alternative to the command and control approach is to use performance information for learning and dialogue. Rather than being a system to punish and to hold actors to account, performance management should focus on the future. Performance indicators should inform dialogue and help us to understand complexity. Could this be the reinvention of performance management?

WRAPPING UP

Many good memories! Together with the field of Public Administration, we evolved towards better theorising, better methods and higher academic standards overall. A big thanks to EGPA and its fine research community. In 2019, EGPA is hosted by the Queens University in Belfast.

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