Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten have more in common than you might think. The partisan rancour that often envelops Parliament House might suggest otherwise, but the two leaders — and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle — entered public service to make a difference. To improve the lives of their fellow Australians. To make an impact.
Of course, politicians today — here and around the world — can seem to be more focused on the cut and thrust of winning the daily media cycle, but let’s face it, such tactical manoeuvrings matter little to the average voter. Politics, for the vast majority, becomes more important at election time but otherwise rarely registers on the Richter scale of everyday life. Of far greater importance are the results of the government programs. Will my kids get a decent education? How long will I wait at the local emergency department? When will the new metro link be built? Such questions hold far greater resonance than who won the day in Canberra.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to ensuring the success of government programmes. Good ideas flourish — both in government and opposition — but when it comes to actual implementation they often falter. So many factors can intervene. Governments, after all, are huge and highly complex machines that constantly have to juggle an often competing array of interests. The timeline for policy implementation rarely chimes with political calendars and this means that short-term needs often trump long-term objectives. And skills, or lack of them, are another challenge. Managing a large IT programme, for example, is a skill-set that rarely comes naturally to many in government — or the private sector for that matter.
These challenges are by no means confined to Australia’s borders, however. The Boston Consulting Group has interviewed senior government figures from around the world and all agreed that implementation is both vitally important and a real weakness for government. And in our subsequent global survey of 1000 public officials from 29 countries, 92% of respondents said there was room for improvement in how government achieves impact.
Let’s look at an example closer to home. Successive state and federal governments have sought to deliver improvements in education outcomes. Numerous strategies and programs have been unleashed and reforms enacted but the recently released international data suggests that limited progress is being made.
The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 — a global report card on 15-year-olds’ academic performance overseen by the OECD — found that while Australia still performs above average for developed countries, our ranking has plunged over the past 10 years. In maths, our students are now ranked 19th — compared to 11th in 2003. Science and reading, too, are areas of concern, with at least one in three teens falling below the national baseline level and the overall rankings declining to 13th and 16th respectively. PISA also revealed that a huge performance gap exists between the performance of students from poor or indigenous families and those from well-off households — two and a half years. Indigenous students or those living in remote areas are also twice as likely to do worst in the PISA tests.
Framing the debate
The PISA findings certainly make for sobering reading. Despite the best efforts of policymakers, the outcomes are trending down, not up, and this is after hugely increased spending — a rise of over 40% over the past decade.
Perhaps it is time for policymakers to take a step back and try to view public impact — in education and more generally — from a wider perspective. We believe that public impact rests on three fundamental pillars: legitimacy, policy and delivery. These core elements are interlinked and underpin other integral factors such as political will, well-functioning operations and clarity of objectives. The latter is particularly important — being clear about what it is you are trying to achieve, having clear milestones and closely monitoring your progress are key themes from our in-depth study of this issue.
Adherence to such a framework provides a North Star to public impact for all those affected, even though they view the challenge of delivering impact differently. In education, political leaders must get frustrated by the slow pace of implementation and the chorus of opposition to their efforts, leading them to question whether they possess the fire power to drive them through. Public service leaders, by contrast, view reform attempts in the long-term, arguing that they need time for schools to adjust to changes before passing judgment on their success.
School leaders, on the other hand, cite the continual pace of different initiatives from different parts of government, all of which don’t really understand the day-to-day reality of life in the classroom. They argue, not without some justification that politicians need to leave them alone and let them get on and teach. And as for the community? They see successive governments come in, promise reform and fail to deliver – the temptation to vote them out can be overwhelming.
The core message from all of this is that governments and other stakeholders need to move beyond the policy debates and instead towards a better understanding of the obstacles to achieving delivery and how to overcome them. Time is of the essence. Australians — and citizens globally — rightly expect much from government and if these expectations are not met then legitimacy declines. Between 2007 and 2012, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40% on average, according to the OECD. This, in turn undermines the willingness of populations to support public institutions through taxation and to participate in the democratic process.
The Centre for Public Impact is being established to help. A not-for-profit global foundation dedicated to improving the positive impact of governments, we bring together world leaders to learn, exchange ideas and inspire each other to achieve better results. Sharing insights from around the world, our global events, round tables and website will highlight what has worked and where challenges require new approaches. Our findings will be shared to help governments and their partners gain a greater understanding of what works and why.
We believe that improving the impact of government is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century but it is far from a mission impossible. Legitimacy, policy and delivery provide the bedrock for attempts to achieve better outcomes for citizens around the world, guiding policymakers towards that elusive elixir of public impact. How elusive they find it is up to them.
Top image: Education roundtable in New Delhi with Barun Mohanty and Larry Kamener.