The Role of External Indicators in Measuring the Service Performance of Local Governments: An Italian Case Study

The Role of External Indicators in Measuring the Service Performance of Local Governments: An Italian Case Study

Fabio Cassia (University of Bergamo, Italy) and Francesca Magno (University of Bergamo, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0077-5.ch009
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Abstract

This chapter discusses the role, adoption, and application of external performance indicators within local government. These indicators measure citizens’ satisfaction with offline and online public services and allow administrators to collect timely knowledge about their “customers.” In other words, they play the same role as customer satisfaction research in private companies’ marketing activities. Despite their relevance, external indicators are often overlooked and criticized by both professionals and researchers. This chapter will also review and challenge the main criticisms of external indicators, which state that external indicators are useless and unreliable. Through the analysis of a case study within Italian local governments, the discussion will demonstrate that these indicators have a significant role in public administrators’ decision making, provided that local government embraces a citizen-oriented culture.
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Introduction

Private sector managerial practices have spread into traditional public administration over the last three decades. In the 1980s, the New Public Management paradigm suggested a post-bureaucratic market-based approach (Barzelay & Armajani, 1992) that relied on two main principles: performance measurement and customer-citizen orientation. Since that time, several scholars and practitioners have tried to adapt managerial and marketing tools and to define suitable models for the public sector. Given its proximity to citizens, local government has been particularly affected by this paradigm evolution.

In particular, service performance measurement remains one of the most debated topics regarding public administration. Both internal and external indicators are available for this purpose. In the first case, objective measurements of service delivery (such as cost efficiency) are used to assess service performance. Meanwhile, external indicators are based on the evaluations of the customers (i.e., citizens) who rate their perceived service performance. As a result, by applying both internal and external indicators, public administrators can evaluate internal and external service quality and performance, that is, the overall quality of both traditional and e-government services. As in the private sector, the results of marketing research are used to adapt offerings to customers’ needs. Collected data also serve as input for decision making in the public sector. Several indicators have been suggested and tested by scholars for this purpose.

Nonetheless, recent studies show that several local public administrators remain skeptical about external data’s usefulness and reliability, whereas internal indicators are more easily accepted and require less effort to be applied. Not surprisingly, some surveys report that only a minority of local governments have adopted external indicators so far.

Thus, this chapter addresses the need to overcome this skepticism by demonstrating the fundamental role and relevance of adopting external indicators to develop an efficient local government management. These theoretical arguments are supported by the results of a survey conducted within Italian local government. Table 1 summarizes the structure of the chapter, providing a model for readers to follow.

Table 1.
Structure of the chapter
Title of the paragraphMain contentQuestions answered in the paragraph
1. BackgroundOverview of the evolution of the debate about external indicators     a. Which aspects of performance should be measured through external indicators?
     b. What are the most suitable instruments for ascertaining citizens’ satisfaction?
     c. How should collected data be analyzed to make decisions?
2. The role and contributions of external indicators in evaluating local governmentReview and explanation of the common criticisms of external indicators within local governmentThe current theoretical debate raises the following concerns:
     a. Are external indicators useful?
     b. Are external indicators reliable?
     c. Can organizational culture be an obstacle to the introduction of external indicators?
3. External indicators and culture: some insights from an empirical study of Italian local governmentsPresentation of the results from an empirical analysis of Italian local governmentsThe results of research on Italian local governments address the following concerns:
     a. Are external indicators useful?
     b. Are external indicators reliable?
     c. Can organizational culture be an obstacle to the introduction of external indicators?
4. Solutions and recommendationsPresentation of a seven-step process to remove resistances which prevent local governments from adopting and systematically applying external indicators     a. From a managerial perspective, how can external indicators be introduced into local governments?
5. Directions for future researchDiscussion of unanswered questions and future research opportunities     a. What are the future opportunities for research on external indicators in local governments?

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