Performance management as ritual in the New Zealand public sector
Performance management systems (PMS) have been championed as promising much to the public and private sectors alike (Davis & Albright, 2004; Ittner & Larcker, 2001, 2003; Lapsley, 1999). The basis for most of these claims is that good financial and non-financial information leads to improved business performance (Van Thiel & Leeuw, 2002). In the case of the public sector, well-known systems such as the Balanced Scorecard need to be adapted to suit the unique requirements of the public sector; nevertheless, similar claims are made about their benefits in this context (Behn, 2002; van Helden, 2006; Verbeetsen, 2008). Given these stated benefits, and the sunk costs of initial implementation; one would expect organisations that adopt a PMS to continue using and improving it over time. However, this does not always appear to be the case (Behn, 2002; Bouckaert & Halligan, 2008; Gill, 2010; Office of the Auditor General, 2008). Some organisations adopt and then abandon their PMS (Qu & Cooper, 2011); others maintain it but in a decoupled or loosely coupled form (Perez & Robson, 1999; Van Hengel, Budding & Groot, 2014); while still others subvert its use, or the PMS drives behaviour that subverts “official intentions” (or benefits) (Power, 2000, p. 115). The academic literature on why organisations do not always continue using PMS has so far presented equivocal, ambiguous and inconclusive answers (de Bruijn, 2002; de Waal & Kourtit, 2013; Liguori & Steccolini, 2012; Van Dooren, 2011).
In response to this ambiguity, this study had three aims. The first was to better understand why some organisations that implement PMS attempt to overcome barriers to ongoing PMS use and others do not. The second related aim was to examine the notion of performance from a fresh perspective to offer insights into PMS experiences beyond those provided by the ambiguous prior literature. The third aim was to examine whether a consideration of the affective aspects of PMS can help explain the variable extent to which organisations attempt to overcome barriers to ongoing PMS use. Drawing together these three aims, the research question was:
Can a re-examination of the notion of performance, combined with a consideration of the affective aspects of PMS, provide new insights as to why some organisations attempt to overcome barriers to ongoing PMS use?
To answer this research question, I introduced Alexander’s (2006) theory of performance to the accounting discipline. This enabled the problematising of the notion of performance in previous accounting studies of PMS and the consideration of the influence of affect. This theoretical perspective was used to analyse empirical data collected through interviews, document analysis and observation. It revealed consequential influences of the existence of ritual-like energy, derived from affective responses to multiple definitions of performance. Exploring these ‘performative’ influences helps to better understand why some organisations attempt to overcome barriers to ongoing PMS use, while other organisations do not.