What I learned from… Rod Dacombe

Academic departments conceal libraries of cutting edge research so it is virtually impossible to read everything. But let’s ‘aim to the moon hit the sun’ (or was it upside down?). Here’s what I learned from…

Rod Dacombe (2011) Can we argue against it? Performance management and state funding of voluntary organizations in the UK. Public Money & Management, 31(3), 159-166.

Say you volunteer to help an old lady carrying groceries from the store. Should she thank you if you drag the bags across the street and break everything that she purchased? Clearly not! In fact, if you ask me, you deserved to be punched, not thanked. Well, some voluntary organisations do just that. They promise a job, deliver a half-arsed result, and then want to be thanked for it. Problem is, how do we know when they do a good or bad job? Rod’s about to tell us.

#1. What is a voluntary organisation?

Rod’s using a functional definition which is the fancy organisational theory way of saying that “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and ‘quacks’ like a duck, it’s probably a duck”. OK, I’m joking a bit. I mean, I’m not. That’s more or less what the following extract means:

the voluntary sector consists of organizations which do not distribute profits, are constitutionally separate from the state, are formally organized, self-governing, and benefit from some degree of volunteering… [and, additionally, due to the interest of this article] are funded by the state to provide public services.

But it’s also in line with the most common and probably most accepted approach to conceptualising organisations in academic papers (I use it in my PhD).

#2. What do we know about their performance?

Academia has tried to understand the issue for a while. With some success when it comes to identifying key obstacles.

  • Peter Drucker found that it’s actually very hard to measure performance (I mean, how do you measure increases in well being of senior adults, for example?).
  • Robert Kaplan argued that, due to the above, the use of financial measures is ill-guided.
  • Some other guys made similar points.

But Rod thinks that perhaps we can learn something from the way in which public sector performance is measured, particularly as measures other than electoral-success have been put forward in recent times. As such, he looks into something that is called “New Public Management” (NPM), where there are at least three approaches to measuring the performance of voluntary organisations:

  • Pre-established goals.
    • Pros: if you tell them what you want, you’ll be able to track if they achieve that something.
    • Cons: goals in the voluntary sector can be very ambiguous, which challenges the a priori definition of milestones.
  • Multi-stakeholder approaches.
    • Pros: if the organisation is accountable to many different stakeholders, these will be able to steer it in the right direction with regards to its performance.
    • Cons: since the specific organisations studied by Rod are funded by the state, does/should the state have more ‘pull’ than other stakeholders?
  • Nature of voluntary work.
    • Pros: if we accept that a lot off subjectivity is involved (e.g., users, volunteers), and that objectives are long term, we can understand these organisations better.
    • Cons: managers can subjectively justify almost anything so this approach blurs agent/principal relations.

In sum, voluntary organisations are measured multi-dimensionally. Can the way in which we measure state performance improve this effort?

#3. How is state performance measured?

Though public management literature traditionally focuses more on public organisations, interest in the issue of performance of voluntary solutions to public problems has increased in the UK since about 1979 due to the changes in government that led to a heightened role for non-state actors. Since then, some trends can be observed.

  • Tory/conservative approach: Importing metrics from private sector mainly driven by targets and contracts in a manner similar to how provider/consumer relations happen in markets. This brought about the popularisation of voluntary organisations as an alternative to the state. This in turn led to public funding of voluntary organisations which reached the tune of “£12.8 billion by 2007/08”.
  • Labour/progressive approach: Voluntary sector as partner to government rather than alternative, giving the former ampler and more subjective room for delivering services. Targets then became fuzzier guides to help actors in the pursuit of wider social objectives such as, for example, participation in political affairs.

#4. Challenges of performance management

Whilst the second approach soften the direct control by the state, public/voluntary relations continued to operate upon a sort of contract that heighten hierarchical top-down relations. Likewise, there is emphasis in the achievement of final results.

The problem with this, in the words of Rod, is that “what is conspicuous by its absence in all of this is the kind of broad social change which lies at the heart of much voluntary activity.”

The objective of the voluntary sector was indeed to change society but, if it’s survival depends on achieving goals set by the state, the risk is that managers of the voluntary sector will focus instead in reinforcing whatever the state wants (i.e. reinforce the status quo). Likewise, what was once an activist effort where all resources were put to changing society can become a more corporate situation where a significant part of the resources inevitably end in tracking performance.


Bit of a pickle no!? If performance is not tracked, voluntary organisations can do whatever they want. If it is tracked, on the other hand, they at least partially stop doing what they are supposed to do. Regardless, performance tracking is not going away. That is unrealistic. As such, the challenge is to find a way to track voluntary organisations on the basis of what their original values/purpose are/is.

My [probably irrelevant] comments

I loved this article’s structure. It makes it look easy, which is impressive given that the issue of performance of voluntary organisations is complex and hotly contested. It’s also quite brave to write about a topic for which there is no seeming solution at hand. This is indeed one of those situations where we are ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’. But hey, whilst in an infantile effort to reassure ourselves we tend to deny reality, life is full of these type of wicked problems that can perhaps be partially addressed but are unlikely to ever be fully solved. Least we can do is to do politics on the basis of what the world really is.