Urban Wire China’s ambitious plans show the challenges of performance targets
Demetra Smith Nightingale
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At the G-20 meeting last month, Chinese president Xi Jinping discussed how China seeks to improve “synergy” between economic and social policies, make incomes more equitable, and align education and training with employment and business development.

The Chinese government is tracking progress toward these priorities by setting performance targets that encompass the economy, education, the environment, and more.

The ambitious targets include

  • eliminating poverty by 2020,
  • having more universities use government-approved disciplines and curricula, and
  • reducing air pollution by meeting “good” or “excellent” air quality standards at least 80 percent of the days each year.

As a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, I recently attended two conferences at Renmin University of China that focused on how China is implementing performance targets.

For China to implement these targets, it must face challenges that have become evident in other countries, including that a focus on performance targets can lead to unintended consequences.

Creating meaningful performance targets, crafting careful plans, and evaluating progress toward these targets are essential to ensuring that programs and services are improving, rather than simply changing to satisfy an arbitrary goal.

The United States and other countries seeking to improve government services are still learning. Our efforts can inform and learn from China as it embarks on its ambitious plan.

A performance strategy must meet short- and long-term objectives

Policy objectives often involve short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals raise the stakes because rapid implementation is essential, especially if the targets are aggressive. Long-term goals ensure long-term commitment, but are harder to reach.

China has acknowledged this challenge in crafting its goals. Its environmental and poverty-reduction targets, for example, have annual goals and decennial goals. China has experience tackling aggressive targets, such as moving about 500 million people out of poverty in a decade. Raising the incomes of the remaining 70 million poor people may prove more challenging.

China’s aggressive efforts on this front recall the US War on Poverty of the 1960s, which cut the US poverty rate in half by 1978. Since then, though, the poverty rate has shown only minor change because the causes of and solutions to poverty are complex.

Research and evaluation can validate performance

Requiring evaluations of policies and programs, conducted by independent, qualified third-party researchers, should be an important component of building evidence that can be used to improve performance.

Researchers in Chinese universities and agencies are tracking performance and making results more useful to administrators seeking to improve performance. China also plans to verify progress in the environmental, education, health, and transportation sectors through third-party assessments, user and client satisfaction surveys, and statistical analysis using big data and metadata.

Based on our conversations in China, rigorous impact evaluations and experimental testing of public administration strategies may also become more common. Universities and research institutions must make sure there are well-trained evaluators and data scientists to carry out rigorous studies of the impacts of policies, using credible methodologies.

Beware of unintended consequences, and seek to prevent them

One of the most important lessons about performance management is that unintended effects occur. Emphasizing performance targets in one area may have negative effects in other areas. Tracking quantitative goals, for instance, could encourage data manipulation by workers, professors, or administrators who feel pressured to meet targets.

A well-publicized example came to light in the United States when some veterans hospitals, in their desire to meet performance “timeliness” targets, misreported how long patients had to wait to receive a medical appointment.

Placing priority on one goal could affect other goals. Aggressive enforcement of environmental targets, for instance, might make business development and poverty-reduction goals harder to meet. University faculty under pressure to publish may devote less attention to teaching. 

Anticipating in advance how performance requirements will be implemented and interpreted can help China avoid unintended effects, as will using what performance experts refer to as “balanced scorecards,” tracking progress on a regular basis, identifying factors affecting activities and outcomes, and providing feedback or adjustments to stay on track.

It will be interesting to follow how China’s performance management approach evolves, especially how they balance aggressive environmental and poverty-reduction targets while the country’s technological and industrial capabilities rapidly develop. The United States and other countries should observe the lessons learned and applied by China as we seek to monitor and improve our own government services.

Research Areas Global issues
Tags International public administration and local government Tracking the economy International development and governance