Peter Greene, in his incisive and typically humorous style, explains here why performance incentives don’t work in the public sector.

 

He offers as one example the case of fire fighters. Imagine if they were paid based on how many fires they extinguished, and how much money was saved as a result of their doing so.

 

We have always paid public servants a flat fee, untethered to any sort of “performance measures.” That’s because we want public service to be completely disconnected from any private interests. (And if you just thought, “Damn, this is a long post,” you can get the basic point here and decide if you want to travel down the whole web of alleys with me.)

Fighting Fire with Money

Imagine if, for instance, we paid fire fighters on sliding scale, based on how many of which type fires they put out at a certain speed. This would be disastrous for many reasons.

 

Fire fighters would refuse to work in cities where there were few fires to fight, because they couldn’t make a living. In cities where there were commonly multiple fires, fire fighters would look at each fire call through a lens of “What’s in it for me?”

 

For instance, in a system where fire fighters were paid based on the value of the flame-besieged property, fire fighters might view some small building fires as Not Worth the Trouble. Why bother traveling to the other side of the tracks? It’s only a hundred-dollar blaze, anyway. Let’s wait till something breaks out up in the million-dollar neighborhood.

 

In the worst-case scenario, one of our fire fighters depending on performance-based pay to feed his family may be tempted to grab some matches and go fire up some business.

 

He writes, later in the post:

 

It makes business-oriented reformy types crazy that the way I do my job doesn’t make any difference to my pay. I understand the terror for them there, but that Not Making A Difference is actually the point of how we pay public servants.

It doesn’t matter it’s a big fire or a small fire, a rich person’s house or a poor person’s house– the fire department still does their job. It doesn’t matter whether I have a classroom full of bright students or slow students, rich students or poor students, ambitious students or lazy students– I will still show up and do my job the best I know how. I should never, ever, ever have to look at a class roster or a set of test results or a practice quiz and think, “Dammit, these kids are going to keep me from making my house payment next month.”

 

Why I Won’t Suck

 

Reformsters are sure that human beings must be motivated by threats and rewards, and that the lack of threats and rewards means that I can too easily choose to do a crappy job, because it won’t make any difference. They are wrong. Here’s why.

 

1) I knew the gig when I started. I knew I would not get rich, not be powerful, not have a chance to rise to some position of prominence. There was no reason to enter teaching in the first except a desire to do right by the students.

 

2) Teaching is too hard to do half-assed. Do a consistently lousy job, and the students will eat you alive and dragging yourself out of bed every day will be too damn much. There isn’t enough money to keep people flailing badly in a classroom for a lifetime. Just ask all the TFA dropouts who said, “Damn! This is hella hard!” and left the classroom.
And Most Importantly

 

Threats and rewards do not make people better public servants (nor have I ever seen a lick of research that suggests otherwise, but feel free to review this oft-linked video re: motivation). Threats and rewards interfere with people’s ability to get their job done. Threats and rewards motivate people to game the system.

 

And any time you have a complex system being measured with simple instruments, you have a system that is ripe for gaming. In fact, if your measures are bad enough (looking at you, high stakes tests and VAM), your system can only be successfully operated by gaming it.

 

Greene explains his case so clearly that even a child can understand why performance pay creates perverse incentives. (As Krazy TA, a regular reader is sure to say, quoting Groucho Marx, “please send for a child.”)