ABSTRACT**: One is used to hearing harsh statements about inefficient public services. It is not surprising to see public sector performance questioned. What is surprising is that what is meant by performance, and how it is measured, does not seem to matter much to either the critics or the advocates of the public sector.
The purpose of this paper is to suggest a definition, and a way to measure the performance of the public sector or rather of its main components. Our approach is explicitly rooted in the principles of welfare and production economics. We will proceed in four stages. First of all we present what we call the ‘performance approach’ to the public sector. This concept rests on the principal-agent relation that links a principal, i.e., the State, and an agent, i.e., the person in charge of the public sector unit, and on the definition of performance as the extent to which the agent fulfils the objectives assigned by the principal. The performance is then measured by using the notion of productive efficiency and the ‘best practice’ frontier technique.
In the second stage we move to the issue of measuring the performance of some canonical components of the public sector (education, health care and railways transport), assuming that there is no constraint as to data availability. The idea is to disentangle the usual confusion between conceptual and data problems. In the third stage, we move to real world data problems. The question is then given the available data, whether it makes sense to assess and measure the performance of such public sector activities. The final stage is devoted to explaining performance or rather lack thereof. This exercise has clear implications for public policy.
Finally we argue that when the scope is not components but the entirety of the public sector, one should restrict the performance analysis to outcomes and not relate them to inputs.