Ambiguity of Performance Management in the Fire Safety Policy of Finland
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1773


By Anniina Autero
December 2012
Tampere University Press
Distributed By Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514489419
172 pages
$82.50 Paper Original

At the same time as uncertainty and vulnerability exist in today’s society, requirements for public policies and actions are increasing. This study argues that performance management in governmental agencies and institutions is ambiguous. Shifting goals, incomplete information, time pressure, uncertainty, and volatile conditions are present in public decision maker’s agenda. Uncertainty is an overwhelming feature in public management, especially in the rescue services, and in fire safety policy. It is uncertain where and when fires will occur; however, the unfortunate certainty is that they will, and decisions have to be made and actions taken. Concurrently, expectations improving performance in the public sector and in public actions are relatively high.

The government is held responsible in terms of preventing accidents and disasters, and is accountable when taking action and saving lives during emergency situations. However, one-third of all deaths caused by fire In Finland were brought about by human error. Smoking is one of the most common causes of fires leading to human casualties. In most cases, the victims are under the influence of alcohol and are therefore helpless victims of fires. Carelessness and lack of caution have been identified as important contributory factors. In addition, it is widely supposed that fire deaths are a problem relating to social exclusion. For reasons of such an etiology, even the generally good proven performance of fire departments and fire brigades is not enough to ensure a reduction in the number of fire deaths and an improvement in performance.

Gaining an improved performance and increased effectiveness has been a dominant feature in public administrations and public management in recent years. The public management model is based on performance management that aims at measurable results and outcomes in terms of public actions. The performance management model is studied as a cycle, where the identification of policy problems should be, and can be perfectly rational; policy targets are rationally set and policy actions are properly chosen. Given the same model, evaluations of the rationality of policy actions commonly entail accounting and outright measurement.

At the heart of the performance management model lies the “rational actor model.” In a rational world, a rational actor would make “optimal” choices in a highly specified and clearly defined environment. However, public decision-making purports to be rational, but is constrained by limited cognitive capabilities and incomplete information that limits rational behavior. Research problems are both – in general and in the particular application of fire safety policy –regarded in the light of what is known as bounded rationality.

The theory of bounded rationality has been elaborated on 1957, when Herbert A. Simon and James G. March developed it. The theory has been applied in different disciplines, for example, in economics. James G. March together with Johan P. Olsen in 1976 developed the theory even further in the context of organizational research and created the garbage can model, involving a complete cycle of choice and the theoretical concept of ambiguity. These theoretical tools are used in this study to scrutinize performance management in terms of fire safety policy.

Performance management is ambiguous and ambiguity affects the coherence of the performance management cycle. How different but intercrossing policies “go together” and mutually support each other is studied through the concept of coherence. Ambiguity illustrates the complexity in organizational decision making, and coherence describes the relationship in organizational decision making between different phases in the performance management cycle, and between different policies.

The fire safety policy and deaths caused by fire in Finland have been chosen as the empirical research subject due to the ambiguous character of this specific policy problem. Target setting in safety policies is ultimately ambiguous. Safety is, at the same time, an overall state of effectiveness and also a target for effectiveness. Safety is usually confronted by operative performance targets. The Government of Finland has set an objective that Finland will be the safest country in Europe in 2015 and fire deaths is one of the measures targeted for improving internal safety. By the end of 2015, the number of fire deaths should be reduced to 50. This objective is 37 deaths less than the average from the 1952–2010 yearly count, and, therefore, can be considered as ambitious. However, the optimal result would be zero, where no one would die in a fire, and without ambitious objectives, the relevant operations to curb deaths will not necessarily develop. Statistical variation, but also changes in society affect the number of fire deaths.

No matter how carefully fire safety policy problems are identified, policy targets are set, policy actions are chosen, and policy measures are evaluated; rescue measures alone do not reduce the number of fire deaths. It is becoming increasingly common to state that many of the actions with respect to the threat from fire deaths should be preventive in nature, and that the implementation, and performance of these measures also require individual choice and responsibility, coherence, and co-operation between several policies, their planners, and the various implementing agencies involved.

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