Perfectionist public sector leaders struggle to measure economic impact

By Stephen Easton

Thursday September 11, 2014

Australia’s public sector needs to improve its ability to measure the economic value of its work in the wider economy, a recent survey of senior bureaucrats has found.

Public sector leaders also recognise the need for use of multiple communication channels to drive citizen engagement in the era of e-government, and despite good progress in this regard, still believe their agencies can do much better.

The research arm of Singapore-based publication FutureGov asked 97 senior public servants from Australia, Singapore, India and Malaysia to rate the importance their agency places on “government connectivity”, “citizen engagement” and “economic impact”, along with its level of achievement in each area.

About 20 Australians provided responses to the survey, which was commissioned by Cisco Systems. Most work in the federal public service, but responses also came from parts of the South Australian, Victorian and ACT governments, and the City of Palmerston in the Northern Territory.

One candidly told the researchers:

“I want to measure public value — but I have no idea on the economic impact of what I do.”

Another said:

“Our economic impact is implied rather than direct. Benefits are very hard to measure as an economic outcome as they are often interrelated, and we cannot measure with any certainty something that does not happen.”

Local respondents had a significantly lower opinion of their own ability to measure economic impact than their regional counterparts did; the Australian self rating in this area is 10% lower than the average.

Discrepancies between self ratings for the importance of each goal and how well it is being achieved — referred to as “capability deficits” — were the highest in the Australian responses on government connectivity and economic impact.

The survey report’s authors stress that the figures are relative to levels of ambition in each country and its socio-economic context, rather than an objective measure of performance. FutureGov‘s boffins say that overall, our public sector leaders are “ambitious achievers”:

“Overall Australian respondents appear to be making good use of technology within their organisations — as they attribute the highest levels of importance to a broader range of connectivity tools than any of the other surveyed countries.

“However, Australian respondents collectively ranked lowest in their estimation of the importance of instant messaging (27.8%), bring your own device (45%) and social media (47.3%).

“Given the key role these tools play in collaboration, the mobile web and citizen engagement, and the fact that Australia scored markedly lower than the other countries – these results are worthy of greater attention from executives.”

The Australian capability deficit on government connectivity was the largest of any country or topic covered in the survey — despite a high level of connectivity in Australia in general — showing that Australian officials see the ability of individuals and organisations to communicate via multiple channels as very important and set ambitious e-government goals. According to the report:

“This contrast reflects the relative sophistication of Australia’s public sector. The more aware you are of the tools available, the greater the scope for dissatisfaction with their current rate of use in your organisation. This conclusion is supported by the fact that when it came to the number of ‘very important’ connectivity tools being used — Australia’s public sector actually scored highest of the surveyed countries.”

The survey also reflects Australian concerns about equity in connectivity, which is far lower outside of metropolitan areas.

FutureGov is holding a discussion on “the implications of these findings for the Australian public sector” at Brindabella Business Park, Canberra Airport, on September 26 from 8.30am.

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