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Partnership In Performance Management: Strategic Choice And Management/Union Cooperation In The Nsw Public Education System Since 2000

Liway Johnson

Drawing on the classic insights offered by Kochan, Katz and McKersie's (1986) Strategic Choice Theory, as well as on more recent inquiry and debate on union-management 'co-partnership', this study investigates the origins, operation and impact of an unprecedented initiative in union-management cooperation in teacher performance management in the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) in the form of the Teacher Efficiency Agreement (TEA) of 2000. Individual performance management is a matter that, in terms of Australian employment law, has historically been regarded as the exclusive preserve of management. The TEA initiative was the first formal union-management partnership in any Australian education system to deal explicitly with the monitoring, assessment and remediation of individual teacher performance. It also represented a major shift in the strategic outlook of both DET senior management and the union covering the State's public sector teachers, the NSW Teachers' Federation. As such, the DET-Teachers' Federation 'Teacher Efficiency Agreement' can be seen as a significant concession by this hitherto militant union to the 'New Public Management' agenda.

With a view to gauging continuity and change over time under the TEA system, the study draws on two phases of interviewing, conducted in 2003-4 and 2008-9, and framed around depth case studies of four schools, two located in a metropolitan school district (Liverpool) and two in a non-metropolitan district (Orange). This approach has enabled longitudinal analysis of system impact. The rationale for longitudinal study is to gauge the extent of outcomes and of the teacher performance management system and its human resource and industrial relations implications since the first round of interviews in 2003.

The evidence presented shows that the administration of teacher performance management under the TEA has involved multi-level cooperation between DET management and the Teachers' Federation in relation to this key staffing function, with partnership being most in evidence at workplace level. Secondly, the evidence reveals that this system of performance management has had a generally positive influence in terms both of process effectiveness and procedural fairness. Thirdly, while the evidence on the impact of performance management co-partnership on the overall industrial relations climate in the NSW public school system is necessarily circumstantial, it would appear that the 2000 Agreement has made an important contribution to the demonstrable shift from industrial confrontation to consultation during the course of this decade.

The study also reports five key findings of direct relevance to industrial relations theory and practice. Firstly, the evidence supports the Strategic Choice Theory proposition that the ability of either party to make strategic choices reflects the degree of power available to the other. Even if management remains the primary locus of strategic choice, choice is not simply the unconstrained prerogative of the management. Secondly, the evidence supports the proposition that the emergence of a management-union partnership arrangement, and its subsequent outcomes, are influenced by a complex of array of internal and external factors pertaining to the relevant industrial relations system. In short, the nature and extent of any partnership arrangement will depend chiefly on the specific contextual factors within which it arises. Thirdly, the evidence presented establishes that strategic choice and decision-making necessarily occurs at all levels of the organisation, even if top management remains the primary locus of choice. Fourthly, the findings support previous research highlighting the positive role that a union may play in the management of workplace change/reform. Fifthly, the evidence highlights the fraught nature of the partnership process for all parties, even for a powerful and well-resourced union such as the Teachers' Federation.

In sum, the study demonstrates, this unusual partnership was long in the making, and its emergence and significance can only be adequately understood through the lens of history and the insights on the multi-actor, multi-level dynamics of industrial relations system transformation offered by Strategic Choice Theory.


Professor John Shields