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All very well in theory?

Do we have a robust theory of organizational performance in the public services?

When a doctor prescribes you a treatment for a particular sickness you may well be unimpressed if she is unable to explain how and why that treatment will make you better. You expect her prescription to be based in a theory of how the body correctly functions as an organizational system and explicit reasoning about how the treatment will remedy the malfunction you are experiencing. Similarly, interventions to improve public service performance need to be theoretically grounded, yet despite a raft of interventions in recent years – from targets, league tables and composite ratings to ‘turnaround teams’ and ‘superheads’ – it is unclear if we have any coherent idea why these initiatives ought to work. Without a coherent and correct theory of intervention, we are akin to medieval doctors prescribing blood-letting for anything from plague to madness.

In this fellowship, Colin Talbot will examine a range of theories of organisational performance in the management and organizational studies undertaken and will also explore theories of intervention in organizational performance, to examine whether there is a robust theory for the public services, and if not, whether one can be created. 

What the research means for policymakers and the wider community

The fellowship will have a number of beneficiaries:

Research Methods

The fellowship primarily consists of desk based research, based on a ‘realist synthesis’ approach, which will draw together the findings of a number of the Programme’s projects and the wider literature on performance intervention and organizational performance. A series of interviews with civil servants and public sector managers will be conducted in order to discover the theories of organizational performance and intervention that currently permeate the public sector, and whether there are disparities between those at the sharp and those at the blunt end of service delivery.  

Project Outputs and Related Webpages

Talbot C. (forthcoming 2010)  Theories of Performance: Organizational and Service Improvement in the Public Domain, OUP

Talbot C. (2008)  ‘Performance Regimes—The Institutional Context of Performance Policies’ International Journal of Public Administration, 31(14) : 1569-1591

Visit Colin Talbot’s blog.

Research Team

Colin Talbot (Manchester University)

Colin Talbot is Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. His research interests include public services and public sector management reform. He has recently completed major international comparative studies on the creation of arms-length agencies (for the UK government and ESRC); the use of performance reporting systems (for the National Audit Office); and budget participation and scrutiny systems (for the Scottish Parliament). He has acted as a Specialist Adviser to the Public Administration and Treasury Select Committees in Parliament.

Email: colin.talbot@manchester.ac.uk