Exploring Local Managers' Motivations to Seek Problem-Solving in Response to Citizens' Feedback Signals on Service Quality.

AuthorShin, Heontae
  1. Introduction

    Performance management has become a global trend for government reform. The doctrine of new public management has strengthened the belief that poor government performance can be remedied by measuring or evaluating public services' inputs and outputs (Kettle, 1993). However, despite many terms and practices of performance management, it is unclear what mechanisms lead public managers to seek feedback on their performance. Performance feedback is an ongoing communication process where information is exchanged between senders and receivers to improve performance (Ashford and Cummings, 1983; Cyert and March, 1963; Larson, 1984; Min and Oh, 2020).

    Cyert and March (1963) explain the two stages of performance feedback processes in a behavioral theory of the firm. Managers identify problems and search for solutions when confronted with various feedback signals. In the first stage, managers identify problems when they cognitively perceive, interpret, and react to feedback. The next step underlines a solution-searching process. This process captures managers' problem-solving strategies because they aspire to improve their job performance by actively searching for solutions to problems. Despite the importance of performance feedback processing, questions remain about the link between problem identification from feedback signals, seeking answers to problems, and exposing managers to performance information. This study considers the following questions clarifying the missing link in the performance feedback process: (1) Do citizens' feedback signals on public service quality affect public managers' motivation to seek problem-solving? (2) Do managers' motivations in response to citizens' feedback signals differ according to either their performance levels or the specificities of feedback signals?

    Notably, the performance feedback process has become salient among local governments because citizens' evaluations of local service quality legitimize local managers' work. Therefore, local managers attempt to identify problems through various performance feedback signals on citizens' preferences concerning local service delivery (Melkers and Willoughby, 2005). Local managers also actively search for solutions to enhance local service quality because they are sensitive to citizen feedback on local service. Due to the importance of the performance feedback process at the local level, we established a survey experiment targeting local managers in South Korea. We presented local managers with different information formats related to citizen satisfaction with local services quality. Local contexts in South Korea are unique from local performance management's perspective because local governments are subject to various performance evaluations from the central government. The Ministry of the Interior and Security conducts annual evaluations across all 226 local governments. These central evaluations assess whether local public services reach defined performance targets, including citizen satisfaction with service quality. Local managers are sensitive to the central assessment because local governments' national grants depend on these evaluation results. To respond to such intense performance systems in South Korea, most local governments operate various performance advisory or consulting groups composed of citizens, professors, professional policy analysts, etc.

    By conducting our research in a unique empirical setting, this study clarifies when and how local managers are motivated to seek advice in solving performance problems in response to citizen satisfaction feedback on service quality. The empirical evidence matters because it provides meaningful insights into when feedback signals motivate managerial problem-solving for performance improvement. Furthermore, empirical results indicate that how feedback is formatted, processed, and reported impacts whether managers actively search for solutions to public service performance problems. Our study also takes methodological advantage of current performance management studies' internal validity by examining managers' behavioral motivations to seek problem-solving through a locally administered randomized survey. Finally, in response to intense performance systems in South Korea, this study focused on local governments that are highly reliant on external advisory groups. As a result, the study's external validity is enhanced compared with previous international studies concentrating on Danish, Flemish, American, and English samples where local managers may have differing approaches to local performance management.

  2. Performance feedback processes in performance management

    Cyert and March (1963) suggested that performance feedback explains how individuals identify problems and search for solutions during the feedback process (Ashford and Cummings, 1983). For example, managers identify problems in the performance feedback process by recognizing and interpreting feedback signals and finding solutions through communication and interaction with others (Luckett and Eggleton, 1991). Ashford and Cumming (1983) conceptualize the performance feedback process by capturing direct and indirect feedback mechanisms. The first feedback mechanism indicates indirect processes that lead to managerial feedback-seeking. This process identifies managers' performance shortcomings based on their cognitive responses to performance feedback signals (Jones and Gerard, 1967); managers rely on various sources of feedback to discover problems in their work. The second mechanism is more direct than the first. Managers directly involve themselves in the problem-solving process based on their interpretation of feedback. In this process, managers directly interact or communicate with others for problem-solving. Morrison and Weldon (1990, p. 47) explain this direct feedback as actions or activities that 'involve the creation of a feedback channel when none exists'. Therefore, direct feedback demonstrates managers' efforts to search for solutions to correct problems in the decision-making process by interacting with elected officials, citizens, and third party experts. A vital performance feedback system in a manager's problem-solving process is performance consulting. The prior study emphasized performance consulting in the managerial problem-solving process (James and Moseley, 2014). Performance consulting is a process that searches for solutions to problems to improve organizational performance (Holton et al., 1998). Even though the private sector more frequently uses performance consulting, public organizations also operate performance consulting systems where advisory groups such as citizens, professors, and policy analysts participate. As a result, public managers can discover practical solutions from multiple experts in the performance consulting process.

    Due to its importance, scholars clarify why managers seek performance feedback. For instance, public management studies draw attention to the role of external influences in seeking managerial performance feedback (Yang and Hsieh, 2007; Bourdeaux and Chikoto, 2008). Researchers demonstrated that public managers are responsive to external stakeholder groups, such as elected officials, interest groups, media, and citizens (Nalbandian, 1999). External pressure from such groups drives local managers to identify problems and search for solutions more frequently. Thus, amenable and diverse external stakeholders can play a critical role in managers seeking performance feedback. However, managers are engaged in performance feedback processes to respond to stakeholders in fragmented environments (Bourdeaux and Chikoto, 2008), while political support serves as a buffer from external pressures with the credibility of elected officials (Yang and Hsieh, 2007).

    At the local level, citizen satisfaction data with service quality is an essential feedback signal motivating local managers to solve problems that contribute to public service performance. Residents' satisfaction with local services is one of the most critical measures for assessing residents' life quality. Therefore, feedback is essential on the effectiveness of local government public services. Scholars regard citizen satisfaction as a significant external feedback signal identifying local public service performance and initiating managers' problem-solving. Notably, the principal-agent relationship and accountability theories explain local managers' active engagement in problem-solving processes when exposed to feedback, such as citizen satisfaction data on service quality (Wang, 2001). Local managers are accountable for residents' service satisfaction in local service delivery. Local managers (as agents) feel accountability pressures because residents, as principals, are the external source of local managers' authority and legitimacy. Accordingly, local managers are susceptible to citizens' satisfaction with local service quality as external feedback signals and make efforts to hear from various stakeholders when searching for solutions to problems (Halachmi and Holzer, 2010).

    Here, an important consideration is identifying which citizen feedback signals' content and framing affect local managers' motivations to seek solutions. First, the content of external performance signals relates to managers' problem-solving. For instance, negative signals can influence managers' decision-making more actively than positive signs, causing negativity bias. The performance gap theory explains that managers are more reactive to performance shortfalls. When current performances fall short of either past performance or peers' performance, managers actively seek potential solutions to the problems identified by negative performance signals (Greve, 1998; Salge, 2011). In particular, local managers are more sensitive to negative citizen satisfaction signals to avoid external blame for poor public service...

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