Text size: A A A

Public value: how to tap its power and potential

Mark Moore
Mark Moore

The notion of the role of public service leaders as creators of “public value” is one of the cornerstones of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s three-week residential Executive Fellowship Program.

The term “public value” was coined in the mid-1990s by Professor Mark Moore of Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government. It has been extensively developed in multiple articles, and in two key books, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (1995) and Recognizing Public Value (2013).

The core idea was that just as the goal of private managers and companies was to create private (economic) value for customers and shareholders, so the goal of government agencies was to create public (social) value for citizens, taxpayers, and those individuals who had individual encounter with government agencies.

Moore’s work has been highly influential, with the concept being taken up initially by United States not-for-profit organisations and subsequently by a number of high-profile public sector bodies in the United Kingdom and other countries. The academic world has also embraced it, with a number of leading journals covering it in recent years, culminating in the devotion of the whole July/August issue of the top-ranked US journal Public Administration Review to the concept.

ANZSOG Professor John Alford, who visited the Kennedy School for several months in 1988 and observed its executive education programs, set up ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows from 2003. The two worked closely on program design, and Moore has played an integral role as lead presenter.

“I was intensely involved from the very beginning,” said Moore from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I worked with John [Alford] and with other faculty members from Australia and New Zealand, and helped to recruit other faculty from Harvard — to design and execute a program that would work in the context of Australia.”

The Executive Fellowship Program currently comprises four leadership strands: leadership of the environment, the organisation, of others and of self. It combines theory, case studies and practical exercises and the Harvard case method is used extensively.

The Harvard case method is a form of teaching that works well for senior officials who are accustomed to thinking independently and taking action, says Moore.

Faced with the problem of how to engage their minds and spirit in an effort to improve their practice, he says one of the valuable devices for doing that is to show them a case of one of their peers doing something and asking what they think about it.

“What happens in a case discussion is that you show the participants a particular individual facing a particular challenge, and beginning to think about and act on the problem at hand. You then ask the evaluative question: ‘how do you think that manager is doing?’ and the payoff question, ‘what do you think he or she ought to do?’. What always surprises them is that there are 10 different answers in the room. They are surprised because they are sure they have the right answer. It is the answer that is based on their own experience. Suddenly, they see that there are different answers,” he said.

“The challenge then pits their judgment based on their own experience to that of others in the room. Once that experience gets out in the classroom it becomes possible to discuss that and explore its logic and its rationale and the degree to which it seems robust and reliable. Through that process you can gradually move people around a little bit on how they think about problems. Usually it has the effect of both widening and disciplining their thought processes in a way that is superior to the ones they previously relied upon.”

Moore says participants often react to the core concept of public value in two stages.

“The idea of public value is appealing to many public service managers because it describes a task they want to be able to do and wish they had been assigned to do. As such it gives them a little bit of an uplift, an inspiration and a focus for their work. It also helps them remember why they went into the public service at the outset,” he said.

[pullquote] “The good news for Australia — and New Zealand as well — is you’ve got very fine public servants there. There is still a great deal of social respect for the work they do …” [/pullquote]

But it turns out that a full embrace of the concept begins to raise challenging and uncomfortable questions.

“Each of the elements of what we call the strategic triangle creates a significant intellectual and practical challenge for the participants. The triangle demands answers to three tough questions: what’s the public value we’re creating, where’s the legitimacy and support going to come from, and what kind of operational capacity do we need to deliver that? It is not enough to answer each of these questions independently; they all have to align with one another in a particular concrete circumstance,” Moore said.

“It turns out that once you start using that, there’s a rather exacting challenge in each of those areas. So while the idea [of public value] starts off feeling like a warm bath, it then turns into a cold shower. Both are important. And then people will shake themselves and towel themselves off and some will feel exhilarated by the cold shower and some will be luxuriating in the warm bath and people will go out and do what they do in government.”

Apart from his teaching work in various Kennedy School programs, Moore has taught and given courses for other US non-profit agencies and in the UK and Europe, but the relationship he has had with ANZSOG is the most long lasting of the programs he has worked with. So how does Australia measure up?

“When I come to both teach and lecture in Australia I find remarkably open and enthusiastic audiences,” said Moore. “The good news for Australia — and New Zealand as well — is you’ve got very fine public servants there. There is still a great deal of social respect for the work they do, and that helps them have an appropriate degree of self-respect. That is not always true in other parts of the world.

“You’ve got politicians who are demanding changes and are astute enough to understand those changes need to be legitimised. So the workers in the system, whether they are cabinet officials or career public servants know that they: a) have to work on value; b) work on legitimacy; and c) work on transforming existing capabilities to deal with new problems. So, once they understand that’s the core of what we’re talking about and that we now have permission to address ourselves to each of those operational tasks, then things tend to get to be a pretty good conversation pretty quickly.”

The next Executive Fellows Program runs from November 3-21 in Melbourne.

Author Bio

The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.