Q & A: Raising the Expectations of Performance Measurement

Q: Here’s a concern I hear often about performance measurement: Serious initiatives to build and implement court performance measurement systems (CPMS) will raise false expectations among court staff and other stakeholders that the court will actually make improvements in response to performance results. The concern is based in the fear that court leaders will be caught flat-footed responding to performance results (e.g., low public satisfaction with court services, sub-par on-time performance in case processing, and rates of compliance with court orders that fall short of benchmarks).

A: While a poor performance showing is rarely a cause for rejoicing, the concern that performance measurement itself will raise false expectations that something will be done is misplaced. The concern misses the power of performance measurement to engage individuals at all levels, not just top managers, in improvement strategies. It also makes the questionable assumption that all change for the better must be delivered by top management. (The concern may be due in part to a misunderstanding of the differences between performance measurement and research. See October 7, 2000, posting, “The Differences Between Performance Measurement and Research”).

Innovations Are Uploaded, Not Downloaded

If responding to performance results is considered the exclusive domain of court leaders and top management there well may be cause for concern. But finding solutions and formulating strategies is less often a top-down process. (Think about the in the way the Internet has changed users from spectators to active contributors in a participatory democracy that was thought impossible just a few years ago – this blog is an example.) Court leaders and top managers typically do not have the detailed knowledge and direct control of processes to tell people what to do differently. At best they have remote control. Their job is not to tell people what to do, but rather what they want to achieve, what their expectations are. And that’s where performance measures come into play.

From a leadership and management perspective, performance measures are valuable because they are unambiguous and actionable. They facilitate focus, and clarity, and help action. Rather than relying on vague exhortations about mission (“We need to build public confidence.” “Our court will become the best limited jurisdiction court in the country.”), court leaders can be absolutely clear about their high expectations, about what they would like to achieve – an 8% increase in public satisfaction with court services from 67% to 75% the next quarter, an increase of 4% in overall on-time case processing across all case types in six months, and an increase in collection of monetary penalties of 11% over the next year.

Bringing People Together for Joint Action

In my view, the fear of raising false expectations with performance measurement is less about high expectations for action per se – most managers like high expectations for their motivational qualities – but rather more about who will do the heavy lifting. If performance measurement points the finger at top management to do it all by themselves, there’s not much incentive for court managers to engage in it. But that’s not what performance measurement does. Because good performance measures can help court leaders and managers be clear and focused about what needs to be achieved, performance results can serve as invitations for wide participation in needed improvements.

By being focused and clear about the desired outcome in terms of performance measures (e.g., a clearance ratio of 105 percent in the next quarter) court staff are free to devise creative means to achieve the desired outcome. Performance measures encourage delegation and discourage “micro-management.” General George Patton said that when you don’t tell people what to do, but rather where you want to be, they will surprise you with their ingenuity and diligence.

Rather than shying away from high expectations, court leaders and managers instead should use performance measures to encourage and shape them. They should use performance measurement to bring people together for joint action.

Copyright CourtMetrics 2005. All rights reserved.

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