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Performance auditing, new


public management and
performance improvement:
questions and answers
Frans L. Leeuw
Utrecht University and Netherlands Court of Audit,
The Hague, The Netherlands
Introduction
This article discusses relationships between the new public management
(NPM) and performance auditing (PA). Usually, it is believed that public

sector

and

performance audits as well as financial audits lead to a more efficient and


effective performance of this sector. However, in several West European
countries this assumption recently has been challenged. Adherents of NPM are
critical with regard to this assumption.
The article first describes characteristics of the new public management and
next answers the question why performance auditors should be interested in
this phenomenon. The major part of the paper discusses difficulties and
challenges performance auditors are confronted with when their aim is to
contribute to a better public sector performance. Most of the examples used
studies referred to in this contribution refer to the situation in WesternEuropean countries like the UK and, in particular, The Netherlands.
New public management: some characteristics
In Western Europe the concept of new public management (NPM) is becoming
popular. It emphasizes economy, efficiency and effectiveness of governmental
organizations, policy instruments and policy programmes. NPM strives for a
greater quality of service delivery. Lesser attention is paid to compliance with
formally prescribed processes, rules and procedures. Other goals of NPM are
freeing up controls over and devolving greater responsibility to operating
managers, creating additional flexibility or autonomy for managers, making
public sector managers manage, stressing a greater focus on risk management
and measuring performance (PUMA, 1995, pp. 9-10).

Accounting, Auditing &


Accountability Journal,
Vol. 9 No. 2, 1996, pp. 92-102.
MCB University Press, 0951-3574

OECD

The views expressed here are those of the author and no endorsement by The Netherlands Court
of Audit is intended or should be inferred. An earlier version of this paper was given at the
symposium on Performance Auditing and Performance Improvement in Government, Paris,
6-7 June, 1995.

Organizational mechanisms through which these goals are achieved are the
following:
The establishment of quangos: quasi-autonomous non-governmental
organizations and similar executive agencies functioning at arms length
of (central) government.
The creation of quasi-markets: the government is paying for the
services,
but it will no longer be providing them. Instead, welfare services will be
supplied primarily by a variety of semi-independent agencies. Schools
will be competing for state-financed pupils and independent hospitals
will be competing with each other for patients (Bartlett and LeGrand,
1993).
Privatization.
Public-private sector partnerships.
Policy networks. Essential for these networks is that government acts
primarily as a conductor of different activities of different actors.
Together with pressure groups, independent experts and advisory
groups, government tries to define and realize policy goals[1].
In general it is believed that through these organizational mechanisms
government will get leaner, smarter, more efficient and more effective.
Why should performance auditors be interested in the new public
management?
Given the NPM focus on efficiency and effectiveness, it looks like there is
hardly
a need for performance auditors to focus on reviewing NPM. Stressing the
importance of efficiency and effectiveness and contributing to their realization
has always been a central goal of PA. So why, it could be argued, bother NPM
officials with audits when the goals of both activities are so similar?
There are three reasons why performance auditors nevertheless are (and
should be) focusing on NPM and its possible consequences:
(1) NPM has goals that converge with the goals of PA. However, there is no
a priori evidence that these goals indeed will be realized. Striving for
performance improvement of governments is not equal to realizing
improvement. Studies on intended and unintended consequences of
policy making show that goals sometimes run the risk of being so
promising and challenging that politicians and bureaucrats, merely by
publicly stressing their importance, believe that they are already
realized. Sieber (1981) gives examples and calls this overcommitment.
Performance auditing makes it possible to distinguish ambitions and
intentions from realizations.
(2) Implementing NPM runs the risk of leading to unintended and
undesired consequences which are counterproductive to the goals
formulated. Auditing can unravel intended and unintended

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those

consequences. In the literature examples of unintended consequences


are given. One is cream-skimming which is discrimination by either
purchasers or providers against the more expensive users: the
chronically ill patient, the incontinent, confused, elderly person, the
disruptive child If purchasers can choose for whom they will
purchase and providers can choose for whom they will provide, that is,
if they can skim off the cream, then welfare services may not reach
who need them most and equity will not be achieved (Bartlett and Le
Grand, 1993). This example stresses the importance of having clear
performance measures.
(3) Innovations like NPM run the risk of being mimicked. While the early
adopters of NMP may implement the philosophy in practice and indeed
create successes, later, other organizations start to imitate their
successful predecessors without, however, realizing the same effects
(isomorphism). Put somewhat differently: the latter organizations may
have the form right, but the substance wrong. Legitimation has become
more important than innovation. Performance auditing is able to
unravel these different aspects of the implementation and adoption of
NPM.
These three reasons play an important role for auditors at The Netherlands
Court of Audit to become involved in NPM. Before discussing difficulties and
challenges of auditing NPM, I will first give some background information on
The Netherlands Court of Audit.
The Netherlands Court of Audit: mandate for and practice of
performance auditing and programme evaluation
The Netherlands Court of Audit (in Dutch, Algemene Rekenkamer) is an
independent body and not subject to political supervision. Its primary focus is
the central government and related organizations. The Courts structure, duties
and competences are set out in specific acts of which the Budget and
Accounting Act (BAA) is central. The Court, which has a staff of 300

employees,
has a board of three persons (president and two members). The audit and
research work itself is done in three directorates, one with a special focus on
performance audits and evaluation, one with a focus on legality and one with a
focus on auditing quangos, government-sponsored enterprises and similar
public-private arrangements.
The Budget and Accounting Act (BAA) includes the following statements
on
auditing efficiency and effectiveness (article 57): The Netherlands Court of
Audit pays attention to the effectiveness and efficiency of government
management, organisation and policy (BAA, 1991). The expression pays
attention to means that the audit office investigates efficiency and
effectiveness, in terms of procedures and regulations and through on-site
investigations and programme evaluations.

The BAA (article 57) specifies the goals of the performance audit work as
follows:
The auditing of effectiveness and efficiency includes:
(a) auditing the effectiveness and efficiency of management, which includes all possible
aspects of the internal management at (departments of) the public service;
(b) auditing the effectiveness and efficiency of the (departmental) organization; and
(c)

auditing the effectiveness and efficiency of policies (implemented) (BAA, 1991).

The BAA makes the distinction between goal achievement and effectiveness of
policies, programmes and organizations. This is important, because not every
goal achievement can be considered the result of the implemented policy or
programme.
The BAA also gives an answer to the question of which points in time the
Court of Audit is expected to audit the effectiveness and efficiency of policy,
management and organizational structures. The BAA says the following on
this subject:
The current situation is such that the effectiveness of policy is considered auditable as soon as
the government or a minister has taken the decision, whether or not after having consulted
with or after approval of Parliament. Before the policy itself has been implemented, an
analysis of objectives can then also be carried out, as well as an audit of the effectiveness of
policy-preparatory activities (BAA, 1991, p. 7).

In a study published by the Public Management Group of the OECD (PUMA,


1995, pp. 5-7), a distinction is made between substantive performance audits,
where on an ex post basis the functioning of a programme or government
activity is analysed by reference to certain standards or benchmarks and
systemic audits. This latter type of audit assesses the adequacy of performance
information and its use. Both substantive and systemic audits are carried out
by The Netherlands Court of Audit. With regard to the substantive studies the
focus not only is on programmes and activities but also on organizations as
such (how well are they organized and do they achieve the goals set?). With
regard to the systemic audits The Netherlands national audit office also
highlights the so called government-wide performance audits (GWAs), which
focus on policy instruments, programmes and activities relevant for all or most
of all ministries. These audits are comparative in nature. Since the late 1980s
they have formed an important part of the agenda of the Netherlands Court of
Audit. GWAs mirror the current state of the art with regard to different policy
instruments such as subsidies, grants, levies, loans and public information
campaigns (Leeuw, 1992a).
In The Netherlands, substantive and systemic audits make use of results
from programme evaluations. Sometimes these evaluations are carried out by
auditors themselves; more often they are carried out by social science research
institutes (universities, (not-for-profit) research firms). With regard to The

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However,

Netherlands Court of Audit with over 30 per cent of its professional staff
a degree in the social, behavioural or economic sciences, not only reviews of
programme evaluations done by others (through meta-evaluations) are carried
out, but the organization also carries out substantive programme evaluations
(Netherlands Court of Audit, 1991). As a consequence, performance auditing
and programme evaluations converge.
Performance auditing and performance improvement: difficulties
Performance auditors have to play a role in analysing and reviewing NPM and
its consequences. NPM needs auditors in order to verify accountability
information. This information can be used to compare the goals formulated
with the goals realized. As the goals of NPM and PA converge, it can be
hypothesized that NPM officials will welcome performance auditors.
in practice things are not that simple. It appears that the relationship between
PA and NPM is not without difficulties.
PUMA (1995, pp. 12-13) specifies some of the possible difficulties in the
relationship:

for

the focus of auditors on procedures may be too limited to be valuable

performance improvement;
the fault finding approach of auditors may be too narrow-minded; and
the auditors assumed lack of formulating constructive suggestions may
make the relationship between NPM and PA also difficult.
Other difficulties are discussed next.

capital.
only
to

Ossification
Smith (1995, p. 299) illustrates that performance measures can inhibit
innovation and lead to ossification: organizational paralysis brought about by
an excessively rigid system of measurement.
Based on recent Dutch experiences, auditors are sometimes confronted with
the question of why they do not pay attention to the negative impact of their
(fault-finding) approach on the audited organizations human and social
Sometimes commitment of people to their organization declines after a
performance audit is published, even when the findings of the report cover
side-aspects of their organization. This in turn may reduce the motivation of
people. As public sector activities often are peoples businesses, it is wise not
neglect this side-effect.

of

Auditors (and evaluators) like standards


Intosai, Eurosai, CPA-organizations and (learned) societies active in the field
programme evaluation[2] seem to like standards. There is nothing wrong with

standards as such, but when viewed from the perspective of contributing to the
improvement of performance, there are challenges. PUMA (1995, pp. 13-14)

mentions the problem that stressing the importance of standards may lead to an
excessive attention on formal adherence to these standards.
What seems to underly this point is the interest auditors have for procedures
and procedural effectiveness. In most of the audit reports I know (Dutch,
German and Anglo-Saxon), auditors often are satisfied when on paper the
procedural and organizational prerequisites for an effective policy or an
effective public organization are met. However, these prerequisites are nothing
more than articulated assumptions that may be right or wrong. The relatively
few empirical studies in which auditors go all the way (from studying the
preparation of a policy and its implementation to the assessment of the social
impact of the policy) are a signal of this.
Tunnel vision
Stressing procedural effectiveness has at least one other important side effect
tunnel vision:
Tunnel vision can be defined as an emphasis on phenomena that are quantified in the
performance measurement scheme at the expense of unquantified aspects of performance.
For example, maternity service managers in the UK National Heath Service are increasingly
being held to account by a single performance indicator: the perinatal mortality rate. There
is clear evidence that the emphasis on the quantifiable mortality rate is distorting the nature
of maternity services, to the detriment of the non-quantifiable objectives (Smith, 1995,
p. 284).

Smith (1995, pp. 290-91) also provides another example[3]. It deals with the
unintended consequences of adopting the Patients Charter in the UK as a
procedural benchmark. Charters are rapidly becoming a popular policy
instrument in countries like the UK and The Netherlands. The Patients charter
states that no patient should wait more than two years for surgery. The
consequences of implementing this benchmark have had the effect that health
authorities have almost universally eliminated waits in excess of two years.
However, there have also arisen some unintended consequences. First, there
has
been an increase in the number of patients waiting more than one year: indeed,
there is evidence to suggest that the average waiting times have increased.
Further, early reports mentioned by Smith (1995, p. 291) suggest that the
patients who are benefitting from the waiting time initiative are those requiring
relatively minor procedures, at the expense of patients awaiting operations for
more serious conditions.
These descriptions are examples of unintended and negative consequences
of stressing procedural effectiveness and procedural standards. They also
reflect the general difficulties of developing good performance measures.
What
is also at stake is that auditors may stress this type of information, because they
believe that the single, quantifiable indicator is an adequate proxy for effective
health programmes in general[4]. Sometimes, however, this is not true.

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realizing

Other difficulties
In my opinion these difficulties are not related to the necessity of validating
accountability information as such. What are at stake are:
the ways in which this information is reviewed and validated;
what kind of information is reviewed;
to what extent the information in fact can improve performance; and
to what extent the information can have (unintended) and possible
counterproductive effects on performance.
Frey and Serna (1990) have discussed the topic of counterproductive
consequences of auditing practices. Their study referred to national audit
offices in central European countries like Austria. They linked the (quasi)monopolistic nature of audit offices with the production of procedural and
formal information on performance. One of their arguments was that while this
information may be needed from a legality perspective, it is counterproductive
when viewed from the perspective of performance improvement.
These difficulties in the relationship between performance auditing and
performance improvement lead to the following question: what are important
challenges in the relationship between PA and NPM, given the goal of
performance improvement of governments through PA?
Performance auditing and improving the performance of the
government: three challenges
The first challenge
The first challenge is how to develop and help implement performance
measurement schemes that do not run the above mentioned risks and to
identify inadequate performance measures. Maybe one of Smiths (1995)
recommendations is useful here. He suggests involving staff at all levels in

the

development and implementation of performance measurement schemes


(p. 304). When one applies this idea to the world of auditing it may lead to a
greater and more open communication between auditors and auditees on the
criteria applied in PA and NPM.
The second challenge
This concerns an expansion of a point made by Moukheibir and Barzelay

(1995)

about the (implicit) assumptions underlying different types of auditing. This


approach can be linked to earlier studies by Mason and Mitroff (1981) on
analysing strategic planning assumptions, work by Chen (1990) on theories-inaction that underly programmes to be evaluated and to Leeuw (1992b) on
articulating and evaluating policy theories.
Moukheibir and Barzelay (1995, pp. 3-6) distinguish traditional (financial)
audits, performance audits and programme evaluations. Underlying the
traditional (financial) audit is the theory that the government resembles a
machine bureaucracy: this bureaucracy is thought to function well when

officials apply legal norms and technical standards to matters within their
assigned areas of authority and responsibility (p. 4). The performance audit is
based on the theory that government is an:
Adaptive organism: this image portrays managers as agents performing important functions,
including adapting organizations to shifts in their mandates and resources The concept of
performance audit is characterized primarily by the view that the public sector functions well
when managerial rationality is applied to the perennial task of adjusting means to ends and,
in particular, to accomplishing results with resources (p. 5).

Programme evaluation is the third type. Here the underlying assumption is that
government functions well when the programmes (clinical interventions) are
subject to scientific scrutiny and more or less pass the examination. Governments are successful when the effectiveness of treatments (interventions)
increases (p. 4).
Auditors implicit feedback theory. To gain an insight into the difficulties in
the relationship between auditors and NPM, I have reconstructed the implicit
feedback theory which underlies most of the reporting in traditional and
performance auditing. Basically this feedback-theory can be stated as five
steps:
(1) feedback from the auditor to the auditee is needed when it is shown that
the standards or goals are not (or inefficiently) reached;
(2) the auditee will listen to the feedback;
(3) he/she subsequently will take follow-up action;
(4) which will lead to the realization of the formal goals; and
(5) this will not lead to unintended and undesired side-effects.
This theory assumes that the auditee refrains from strategic actions (merely to
make himself look good), elicited by the fact that he is familiar with the
standards or measurements auditors apply. The theory also assumes that the
likelihood of unintended and undesired side-effects is small to zero.
What can be said about the empirical content or validity of this audit
feedback theory? Meyer and OShaughnessy (1993) recently have presented
evidence that strategic behaviour does occur related to performance
measurement. In order to explain this they make use of the concept of
isomorphism and stress that not only managers run the risk of mimicking, but
also auditors/financial analysts and evaluators. Standards will increase
isomorphism and will therefore stimulate strategic response behaviour which is
not the same as improving real performance.
The performance paradox. Meyer and OShaughnessy (1993) have also
challenged the belief that unintended side-effects of measuring performance on
performance improvement are rare. They have coined the concept performance paradox and have demonstrated the validity of this concept on the
basis
of research in the private sector. I do not know of empirical evidence in the
public sector. Basically, the performance paradox is the simultaneous

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proliferation and non-correlation of performance measures. An organization


which aims at safeguarding its performance through the application of
performance measurement instruments is not necessarily an effective
organization:
Even though organizational performance measures tend to be weakly correlated with one
another, performance measures have increased in number and sophistication over time and
staffs charged with monitoring performance have burgeoned correspondingly (p. 252).

This has contributed to the growth of second order performance assessment


by external auditors and financial analysts (p. 252).
Those who assume that (formal) standards and benchmarks reviewed by
auditors will lead to performance improvement, neglect this evidence. For the
coming years it is probably better to focus somewhat less on standardization of
measures and more on creative thinking and discourses between auditors and
auditees on topics like the performance paradox and other unintended
consequences. This is a second major challenge for PA and NPM.
The third challenge
Moukheibir and Barzelay (1995, p. 3) also stress that articulating and
evaluating

which

case

ones own implicit underlying behavioural assumptions should have high


priority. In particular this is true with regard to the feedback theory underlying
audit work. Replacing this theory by a theory of organizational learning, like
the one developed by Argyris (1982), is a third challenge. It will probably
enhance the likelihood that audit work will contribute substantially to the
improvement of performance. Recent evidence from a comparative study on
organizational learning and evaluation research corroborates this assumption
(Leeuw et al., 1994). This study shows that programme evaluation contributes
to single and double loop learning. Argyris (1982) defines organizational
learning as a process of detecting and correcting error. It is a process in
an organization continually attempts to become competent in taking action,
while at the same time reflecting on the action it takes to learn from its present
and past efforts. This conceptual approach differentiates learning as occurring
in either a single or double loop mode. Problem solving that enables an
organization to carry out better its present policies and achieve its current
objectives is defined as single-loop learning. A more comprehensive and
systemic learning process occurs when double-loop learning occurs. In this
the assumptions underlying the policies and goals of a programme are
questioned, leading to the possibility of securing new and innovative
permanent solutions to problems[5].
Auditors should focus more on this (or on a similar) type of learning theory
as opposed to the naive and mechanistic feedback theory which was described
above[6].

Some final remarks


One of the crucial questions is whether or not there is an inherent conflict
between improved accountability and improved performance? My answer is
negative: there is no such thing as an inherent conflict because both
professional groups pursue the same goals. However, it cannot be denied that
there are conflicts between auditing performance on the one hand and
improving performance on the other hand. These conflicts deal with
imperfections or flaws in auditing: i.e. in its underlying (implicit) theories
which
sometimes are naive, in the methodology applied, which sometimes causes
tunnel vision and other unintended side-effects and in the communication
processes between auditors and auditees. However, they also reflect flaws in
the
performance measurement systems adopted under NPM. Apart from that,
isomorphism and unintended side-effects discovered by auditors are usually
not
embraced by NPM officials or politicians because they are debunking and
critical.
A more open dialogue, focused less on procedures, rules and standards, may
be one of the solutions to minimize conflicts. Auditors and auditees need to
review (and discuss) their measurement schemes and measures. As suggested
earlier: commitment to the idea that auditors and NPM officials have their own
implicit pet theories that can be right but also wrong, will also reduce the
likelihood of unproductive conflicts between both groups of professionals.
Notes
1. That governmental agencies together with other corporate actors implement policies is of
course not new. What is new is that the formulation and development of goals of public
policy are carried out jointly with groups and organizations that themselves can
sometimes be seen as causing the problems government might try to solve.
2. For example, the Standards of the American and Canadian Evaluation Societies.
3. Smith calls this measure fixation (1995, p. 280).
4. This resembles what James Q. Wilson (1989, p. 161) calls a kind of Greshams Law:
Work
that produces measurable outcomes tends to drive out work that produces unmeasurable
outcomes.
5. Based on Leeuw and Sonnichsen, Introduction: evaluations and organizational learning,
in Leeuw et al. (1994).
6. Policy and administrative scientists affiliated with Erasmus University Rotterdam
currently are engaged in a research project in which the impact of reports of the
Netherlands Court of Audit is described and explained by using a similar organizational
learning theory. During the First Conference of the European Evaluation Society (Den
Haag, 1-2 December 1994) the project director Frans B. van der Meer gave a paper on this
project.
References and further reading
Argyris, C. (1982), Reasoning, Learning and Action, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
BAA (1991), Budget and Accounting Act (Fifth Amendment), Netherlands Central Government,
Government Printing Office, The Hague.
Bartlett, W. and Le Grand, J. (1993), Quasi-markets and Social Policy, Macmillan, Houndmills.
Chen, H. (1990), Theory-driven Evaluations, Sage, London.

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and

Dekker, P.J. and Leeuw, F.L. (1989), Program evaluation and effectiveness auditing
models and practice, Impact Assessment Bulletin, Vol. 7 No. 1, 1989, pp. 113-35.
Frey, B. and Serna, A. (1990), Eine politisch-konomische Betrachtung des Rechnungshofs,
Finanzarchiv, Vol. 48, pp. 244-70.
Leeuw, F.L. (1992a), Government-wide audits in The Netherlands: evaluating central
subsidies, in Mayne, J. et al. (Eds), Advancing Public Policy Evaluation: Learning from
International Experiences, North-Holland/Elsevier Science, Amsterdam, 1992, pp. 131-41.
Leeuw, F.L. (1992b), Policy theories, knowledge utilization, and evaluation, Knowledge
Policy, Vol. 4 No. 3, pp. 73-92.
Leeuw, F.L., Rist, R.C. and Sonnichsen, R.C. (Eds) (1994), Can Governments Learn?, Transaction
Books, Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ.
Mason, R. and Mitroff, I.I. (1981), Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions, Wiley, New

York,
NY.
Meyer, K. and OShaughnessy, K. (1993), Organizational design and the performance paradox,
in Swedberg, R. (Ed.), Explorations in Economic Sociology, Russel Sage Foundation, New
York,
paper,

NY, pp. 249-79.


Moukheibir, C. and Barzelay, M. (1995), Performance auditing: concept and controversies,
PUMA/OECD symposium, Paris, June.
Netherlands Court of Audit (1991), Auditing at the Netherlands Court of Audit: Case Studies,

The

December.

Hague.
PUMA (1995), Background paper to the OECD Conference on Auditing, PUMA/OECD
symposium, Paris, June.
Shand, D. (1994), Performance auditing and performance improvement in government, paper
presented at the First Congress of the European Evaluation Society, The Hague, 1-2
Sieber, S. (1981), Fatal Remedies: The Ironies of Social Intervention, Wiley, New York, NY.
Smith, P. (1995), On the unintended consequences of publishing performance data in the public
sector, International Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 377-10.
Wilson, J.Q. (1989), Bureaucracy, Free Press, New York, NY.