The power of comparisons: Peer information as a management tool

AuthorSusan M Miller,Lael R Keiser
Date01 October 2019
Published date01 October 2019
Subject MatterArticles
The power of
comparisons: Peer
information as a
management tool
Lael R Keiser
Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri, USA
Susan M Miller
Department of Political Science, University of South Carolina, USA
While previous research has explored how performance data can influence organizations
and considered the factors that shape public managers’ use of performance data, we
know less about the way in which individual bureaucrats respond to performance infor-
mation. Considerable research illustrates the power of peer information in a variety of
contexts, including energy use, voting, and charitable giving. We suggest that public
employees may adjust their behavior in response to information about how their per-
formance compares with their peers. Providing peer information to public employees
allows for learning. If alerted to an unflattering comparison, public employees might be
motivated to alter their behavior. Using the case of administrative law judges in the Social
Security Disability programs, we find evidence that is consistent with the expectation that
individual bureaucrats respond to peer information. This study provides insight into
whether and how public managers can harness the power of peer information.
Peer information, public employee behavior, public management
Due to improvements in data collection and information techniques, governments
are now able to gather vast amounts of quantitative information about public
organizations and personnel (Lavertu, 2015). As early as 1939, Herbert Simon
recognized the power of comparative data to improve performance. Since then
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(4) 494–516
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076718779665
Corresponding author:
Lael R Keiser, Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri, 106 Middlebush Hall, Columbia, MO
65211-6100, USA.
public management scholars have explored the importance of comparisons in
decision-making and factors that shape public managers’ use of performance infor-
mation (see Ammons and Roenigk, 2015; Andersen and Moynihan, 2016;
Bjørnholt et al., 2016; Grossi et al., 2016; Moynihan and Pandey, 2010; Olsen,
2015). Furthermore, a growing body of research considers the way in which com-
parative performance data af‌fects how work in the public and private sectors is
performed (see Bastedo and Bowman, 2010; Fowles et al., 2016).
However, most of these studies have research designs at the organizational or
managerial level rather than at the level of individual front-line employees. These
studies do not provide direct evidence that front-line employees are responsive to
comparative information because our ability to infer individual-level behavior from
aggregate data is limited. Organizations can change for reasons other than the
behavior of front-line employees. They can change because top managers hire
new people, create new programs or reorganize. Studies at the front-line employee
level are needed to understand the usefulness of comparative data for managers
wanting to inf‌luence the behavior of those they supervise.
In this paper, we explore the ways in which individual bureaucrats respond to
information about peers’ behavior. Using the case of Administrative Law Judges
(ALJs) in the Social Security Disability programs, we test the hypothesis
that the behavior of individual bureaucrats will be shaped by the availability
of peer information. The case of ALJs is a good case to study comparative
performance information because Social Security Administration (SSA) man-
agers are limited, like many managers in the public service, in their ability to
attach f‌inancial benef‌its to performance data. Consequently, a study that focuses
on ALJs allows us to examine the association between the availability of peer
information and case processing behavior in the presence of minimal f‌inancial
We f‌ind evidence that is consistent with our hypothesis, showing that the case
processing behavior of ALJs appears to respond to the introduction of a peer
information system. This suggests that public managers, when appropriate,
might be able to harness the power of peer information to inf‌luence the behavior
of public employees. Given that strong material incentives are often problematic in
public organizations (see Heinrich, 2007; Rainey, 1983), particularly at the indi-
vidual level, this research provides important insights to managers regarding their
tools for directing employee behavior.
Power of comparative data
Several studies exist that highlight the importance of comparative data for
decision-making. Citizens’ evaluations of policy and government performance
are inf‌luenced by organizational/government comparisons (Hansen et al., 2015).
Olsen (2017), for example, compares the ef‌fect of social reference points (i.e.,
information about the performance of other organizations) and historical refer-
ence points (i.e., information about the past performance of an organization) on
Keiser and Miller 495

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