The public service comprises people passionate about serving their nation and community. Yet consistently turning passion into high performance for a collective purpose is a unique organisational challenge, one that requires disciplined management techniques.
COVID-19 and other recent emergencies represent a powerfully instructive example of how to address this challenge. The Australian Public Service (APS) rapidly organised and aligned in response to a clear call to arms, delivering extraordinary outcomes such as on-boarding thousands of staff into Services Australia and clearing a million new JobSeeker claims within six weeks, and the NSW Government’s launch of its border control apps in a matter of days.
With a clear goal and direction, combined with the passionate commitment of so many staff, the APS showed itself and Australia what high performance looks like. The challenge now is to capture and replicate that learning consistently – to mobilise that passion in the same direction sustainably – not just in a crisis.
Defining and recognising high performance in public service is structurally challenging
Many public sector goals are qualitative – some of which can be converted to quantitative goals easily enough; for example, customer satisfaction is qualitative but measurable by surveys, and improvement is clear. Other goals such as ‘vibrant communities’ or ‘reduced risk of terror attacks’ are inherently hard to measure, particularly when compared to ‘provide all Australians unemployed as a result of COVID-19 with rapid access to welfare’.
Now layer constantly shifting policies and priorities onto those goals: changes in elected leaders, the machinery of government and budgets all impact priorities. Based on our ongoing work in supporting public sector leaders to create high performing agencies, however, we see high performance as entirely and sustainably achievable in the public sector, based on the following framework:
1. Create a shared view of the noble purpose: a vision for community outcomes that unleashes high performance
To strengthen the agency’s ability to stay focused on community value in the face of constant change and harness the altruistic power of the organisation, its noble purpose needs to be based on clear, tangible outcomes that persist beyond changes of leadership.
Co-creation and communication of a shared, noble purpose cannot be undercooked; it requires careful development and constant reinforcement to ensure everyone is working towards the same outcome.
A State Police force had not updated its organisational objectives for more than a decade. As a result, significant objectives were being pursued by osmosis: objectives were inconsistent and left to local interpretation.
By re-defining clear objectives for the Police force and aligning front-line KPIs, we were able to change behaviours and achieve desired outcomes.
2. Identify SMART targets
In our experience, targets are rare in Australian Government – the inclusion of quantified targets and timelines to achieve those targets even rarer. There is an assumption that APS staff generally have a negative reaction to targets; however, this is not our experience. We have found the adoption of specific targets to be greatly appreciated by staff and highly successful.
To move past a conceptual purpose and towards high performance, the purpose needs to be operationalised as a prioritised set of SMART targets: targets that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. In other words, targets should be unambiguous, quantifiable, within the control of the agency’s staff, aligned to the purpose and held to a specified deadline.
SMART targets give public sector leaders clarity to succeed
|Clearly defined and unambiguous||Easily quantifiable and trackable.||Within leadership control.||Aligned to masterplan.||Specified deadline.|
It is important to note that the time dimension should comprise outcomes that are achievable in two years or less. Distant time horizons are not effective in creating a sense of urgency. For instance, many staff will have moved on to a new role by the time such targets are due.
3. Prioritise resources against the right projects and business-as-usual activities to achieve targets
Organisations need to prioritise projects and business-as-usual (BAU) activities objectively in terms of cost (and other scarce resource consumption), risk and benefits. All three factors must tie directly to achieving the SMART targets.
The combined benefits of delivering the project portfolio and successfully executing the prioritised BAU activities must amount to achieving the set targets. If a target is not sufficiently addressed through BAU activities and the existing project portfolio, a new project is required, or existing projects or activities need to be enhanced.
Conversely, if a project or activity does not contribute significantly to achieving a target, it should be enhanced or stopped, with resourcing reallocated to activity with greater impact. Similarly, if there are activities that create benefits that are not included in the targets, then either the targets need adjustment, or the activities should be de-prioritised (they are no longer achieving a priority outcome).
Focus on doing fewer projects at a time with higher velocity. We often see agencies with 500 or more concurrent projects and typical overruns of 30-100% in time and cost. Cramming excessive numbers of projects into a congested project pipeline creates complexity, exhaustion and confusion, and wastes taxpayer dollars.
Ensure all projects contribute to the joint purpose and agreed targets. Orphaned, standalone or disconnected project portfolios take away from scarce resources needed for priority projects. Have the courage to merge, pivot, suspend or cancel projects that are not mission-critical, regardless of how long staff have invested their time into them.
4. Allocate clear accountabilities for both milestones and individual targets
Each milestone in the project portfolio needs an owner. Similarly, every individual – all the way to the front line – should have at least one KPI that they can connect clearly to the organisation’s purpose and targets.
This means community outcomes must translate to role-level impact so that each member of staff can answer the question: “What is the impact of my role, and how does that translate into an impact on the community outcome we are trying to achieve?”
John F Kennedy famously interrupted a NASA tour to ask a janitor with a broom what he did. The janitor replied that “he was helping put a man on the moon”.
While KPIs may have multiple owners, deliverables and actions must have single point accountability
5. Implement an effective management operating system: short interval control to support individuals to achieve milestones and manage progress towards targets
A management operating system (MOS) comprises the reports, meetings, processes and disciplines that help leaders manage progress towards an enterprise outcome. Leaders often underinvest in designing the MOS, given its profound effect on performance.
In an effective MOS, leaders review operating performance versus targets at least weekly with their teams. The importance of this discipline cannot be overstated: it not only consistently reinforces priorities and expectations, enabling the team to focus on what really matters, but it also provides concrete opportunities for joint problem-solving to resolve issues and accelerate progress.
6. Recognise those who achieve high performance
Recognising strong individual performance in the public sector is challenging at best, and counter-productive if done poorly.
It is now well understood that indirect rewards such as the altruistic nature of the work or the recognition of stakeholders, leaders and peers, are often more powerful motivators for public servants than are direct rewards like bonuses¹. Perhaps as a result, performance-based pay in the APS is in sharp decline, with under 5% of SES receiving a bonus in 2019 versus over 30% in 2011².
This means it is imperative to recognise high performers, helping to maintain high performance in the face of a never-ending workload. Options are many, ranging from simple call-outs on large group calls to a personal “thank you” call from the Secretary or Minister. Recognition may also extend to more tangible rewards such as access to professional development or other opportunities.
Establish a cycle of continuous improvement
This is not a one-off exercise: sustainably high performance requires continuous improvement. Continuous improvement disciplines create a virtuous cycle that regularly challenges and refines the organisation’s noble purpose, the level of ambition reflected in its targets, the alignment of resources against achieving those targets, the clarity of individual accountabilities, the effectiveness of the MOS in driving progress and the impact of recognition and rewards on individual performance.
The public service is a unique workforce with an enormous capacity for high performance, as it has shown repeatedly in response to a crisis. Effectively directing that capacity without the lightning rod of external events requires strong enterprise mechanisms that define, measure, reward and sustain high performance.
Without these mechanisms in place, the exceptional goodwill of public servants is not enough. Goodwill on its own cannot create the outcomes the community needs most; well-directed, high-performing public sector agencies can.
¹ For example, “Managing Organizations to Sustain Passion for Public Service” JL Perry 2020
² In 2019, 9.9% of all APS staff received performance pay, down from 13.7% in 2012 (APS Commission Remuneration Reports)