Larry Kamener: good policy is all about impact

Governments of any stripe find achieving real change difficult, says BCG’s Larry Kamener. But results matter – and policymakers need to rethink and reset their approach to delivery. The question is how?

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.

Impact issues

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.

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