It would be naïve to assume that the persons subjected to variable pay-for-performance would accept the respective criteria in a passive way and fulfil their work accordingly. Rather, they spend much energy and time trying to manipulate these criteria in their favour. This is facilitated by the fact that employees often know the specific features of their work better than their superiors. The wage explosions observable in many sectors of the economy can at least partly be attributed to such manipulations, eg when managers are able to contract easily achievable performance goals.
Arnold Kling goes on to link this with education reform:
When a remote authority sets incentives, people respond by manipulating the system. This fact is poorly understood by education reformers who are fond of pay-for-performance and national standards, by health care reformers who are fond of paying for quality, and by financial regulators. In fact, the quoted paragraph provides an excellent description of the financial regulatory process under risk-based capital. The banks spent much energy and time trying to manipulate the risk-based capital regulations in their favor. They got what they wanted, in terms of risky portfolios backed by little capital.
The Hayekian story here is that effective compensation practices require local knowledge and tacit knowledge. In a large company, you give a middle manager a fair amount of discretion in compensating his or her staff. If instead you try to implement an automated bonus system, you will get gamed.
I think that this hits at the heart of the concerns Mark has been expressing for a while. Test-based systems that are implemented at a very high level encourage all sorts of behavior, and it is quite possible that manipulating the system will be easier than actually improving performance. Even worse, bad performers (gaming the system) have an advantage over good performers as they can get top scores for less total effort.
Bed performance drives out good performance and things get worse. I think Megan is very right to be skeptical about how easy it is to reform systems once they adopt this management style as the new backbone of the labor force are the people who thrive in gaming the system and they will resist change back to older approaches.
I wish we'd look more at the history of countries like Russia for how difficult it is to make top-down reform and economic control work at the national level.