China's Secret? Performance Targets (Page 2 of 2)

Performance evaluations also encourage innovation and adjustment. Each year, evaluations proceed along line relations: higher levels of government evaluate the next lower, local governments evaluate various departments, and so on. First, each “agent” submits a self-examination to the “principal” who oversees it. Self-examinations require agents to give themselves a score out of 100, which often break down to four grades: “incomplete, basically complete, complete or complete above target.” The principals then review the self-examinations, checking evidence against the grades and discussing discrepancies.

According to evaluators in Chongqing, where I am based, discrepancies often result from a lack of expertise necessary to conduct a “scientific” self-evaluation. There are also incentives to inflate performance, another common explanation for discrepancies. Finally, the principals at the next level up approve the review, establishing the final grading reports. These reports follow cadres throughout their careers and impact chances for promotion, but are confidential. In contrast, grades at the firm and government levels are often reported publically. Thus, performance targets and evaluations provide powerful incentives, though through differing channels, to meet policy targets. 

This evaluation process accounts for the CCP’s institutionalized responsiveness. Evaluations are designed not only to oversee lower levels, but also to provide regular opportunities for lower levels to raise implementation problems and policy suggestions.

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Evaluation procedures are also deliberately kept flexible, allowing for localized responsiveness. Most targets include instructions to “implement policies in accordance to local conditions”, making local effectiveness a priority. Though performance targeting can result in “one-size-fits-all” problems, the evaluation process’ informal flexibility seeks to overcome this potential rigidity by allowing evaluators leeway in assessing disparate local implementation strategies according to the local context. In this way the system can both preempt or assuage purely local grievances and transmit potential flashpoints up the chain. In practice, performance targets are less about box-checking and more about finding effective strategies to achieve broad policy goals.

Obviously, there are concerns with the efficacy, transparency and integrity of evaluations. Flexibility, absent redundant oversight mechanisms such as third-party evaluators or public oversight, can result in corruption and inconsistency. Principal-agent problems, whereby central and local actors have different priorities and incentives, make for inconsistencies. Locals often pursue economic growth, which is most heavily weighted formally and also offers informal rewards to officials, to the detriment of other priories, such as emissions reduction.

Moreover, when performance targets determine cadres’ futures, cheating – in which locals “engineer” statistics and grades – becomes an attractive strategy. The central government’s current response to inconsistent policy implementation, making targets more specific and less flexible, can solve this problem but exacerbates the one-size-fits-all problem and consequently lowers the overall effectiveness of governance.

These problems notwithstanding, nuanced use of performance targets has accounted for the CCP’s overall governance performance. Targets both improve central oversight and allow for local flexibility. By orienting performance targets towards central priorities, and making the consequences of failure more stringent, local officials have incentives to find new strategies to achieve overall goals, within certain bounds. Additionally, feedback mechanisms embodied in the evaluation process ensure that targets and strategies are continually adjusted in line with changing conditions and local realities.

Finally, this system is safe for the CCP; it is gradual, avoiding large-scale, potentially disruptive changes, and is mostly internal and preemptive, meaning that wide-scale public participation is not necessary. Institutions change incrementally in any political system, but performance targets and evaluations ensure continual adaptation, and thus effective governance and continued legitimacy for the CCP.

Tucker Van Aken is a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar.

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