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One Standard Fits All? The Pros and Cons of Performance Standard Adjustments


Burt S. Barnow is associate director for research and principal research scientist in the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Barnow's research focuses on program evaluation, performance analysis, labor economics, welfare, and workforce programs. His current research includes an evaluation of the Department of Labor's High Growth Job Training Initiative and an assessment of occupational skill shortages. Dr. Barnow previously directed research and evaluations for the Employment and Training Administration.

Carolyn J. Heinrich is a director, professor, and Regina Loughlin Scholar at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, and an affiliated professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on social welfare policy, public management, and econometric methods for social-program evaluation.


Despite the wide-ranging use of performance measures within the public sector and the growing use of performance bonuses to recognize performance achievements, the use of formal performance standards adjustment procedures in public performance measurement systems is relatively rare. Burt S. Barnow of Johns Hopkins University and Carolyn J. Heinrich of the University of Wisconsin–Madison set forth the basic arguments in favor of and against the use of formal or informal procedures for adjusting performance expectations. They describe how performance standards adjustments processes are currently (or have been) in use, review the evidence of their effectiveness or problems encountered in their application, and explore the consequences of the inadequacy of performance standards adjustments. The authors offer recommendations for the improvement of public sector performance measurement systems and conclude why this area remains fruitful for future research experimentation.

The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.

—Andrew S. Tannenbaum