Getting stuff done in government: three elements of public impact

By Stephen Easton

October 12, 2016

A new international report explores three basic factors that enable effective government: public legitimacy, policy based on sound principles and evidence, and the skilful implementation required to produce the desired outcomes.

The concept sounds simple enough, but governments all over the Western world are struggling with the first fundamental hurdle. Trust in them is declining, whatever their ideological persuasion, and the legitimacy that flows from electoral support appears increasingly fickle.

Fundamentals of Public Impact sets out a basic theoretical framework that aims to “help governments navigate their way from idea to impact” amid growing “fears that populations will become unwilling to support public institutions through taxation or to participate in the democratic process”.

Fortunately, in the educated view of CPI co-chairman Michael Barber, there is cause for optimism:

“Interacting with policymakers from Canada to Kurdistan, South Africa to Australia, has also left me with the firm conviction that the allure of public service still holds strong. The best and the brightest continue to flock to governments far and wide. Theirs is a shared ethos which overpowers the higher salaries or fast pace that might be on offer in the private sector.”

Working as a public servant can be one of the hardest jobs around, says Barber, but he adds that public frustration that tax is being wasted and “public services aren’t matching expectations” should not be surprising:

“This frustration builds. It generates cynicism with the political process and democracy more generally — and this is very dangerous.”

The publication reads like a founding manifesto of the Centre for Public Impact, a think tank established last year by the Boston Consulting Group’s public sector lead Larry Kamener, and draws on expertise, research and advice from a suitably storied group of public policy academics and experienced senior bureaucrats.

Its academic advisory group includes Australia New Zealand School of Government chief executive Gary Banks, alongside Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared liberal democracy the “end of history” as the Cold War was ending.

Another of CPI’s academic advisers, Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Mark Moore, comments that “it is not clear” if all the machinery of modern liberal democratic government is even “capable of achieving important goals, developing better means of achieving existing goals, or of changing goals in the face of new or emerging challenges”.

Moore hopes the CPI fundamentals help “focus managerial attention” on the three core challenges of government, which are aligned with his own theories on creating, and recognising, public value.

He says they “give due emphasis to building the legitimacy for government action among citizens, voters and taxpayers rather than among those who are better described as the clients and direct beneficiaries of government action” and adds:

“This differentiates them from many other frameworks developed in the private sector for application to the public sector.”

The relationship between citizens and government is more complex than the simple exchange of funding for goods and services that occurs between consumers and profit-making enterprises. This means that building legitimacy through consultative policymaking processes that recognise people as voters and citizens is “as important a managerial task” as implementation, according to Moore.

Nine sub-elements of public impact

The report breaks down each of the three public impact fundamentals once again into three elements, policy legitimacy being made up of general public confidence in the whole system of government itself, stakeholder engagement and political commitment in the face of opposing views.

Stakeholder engagement is obviously crucial to the legitimacy of policy — even with a claimed electoral mandate — and is the main area where public servants can contribute to the impact of policies. Every Australian jurisdiction is littered with examples of when government agencies have stumbled in this regard. Banks comments: “This is not rocket science, but it is often neglected.”

Engagement of course requires navigating a minefield of lobby groups with undue political power. Claims of insufficient consultation with the specific interest group were central to New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s embarrassing back-down over banning greyhound racing, against strong overall public support for the ban.

Good policy leans on setting clear objectives right at the start to define “the borders” and identify the problems to be solved. The report suggests targets or indicators are “particularly beneficial when setting objectives because they increase the pressure on governments, bureaucracies and civil society and lead to a greater focus on continuous improvement”.

It notes evidence is also crucial to good policy, but this can again conflict with dominant ideological views and powerful interest groups. The final element of impactful policy, according to the CPI, is feasibility or “the absence of significant technical, legal or operational challenges” standing in the way:

“A policy initiative is more likely to achieve its intended outcomes when the question of how the policy is to be implemented has been an integral part of its design. Proper planning provides a map of how an initiative will be implemented, addressing matters such as timeframe, phases of implementation, responsibilities, resourcing and compliance.”

The report argues effective action in the real world — the final public impact fundamental — requires effective management of the public service, to make sure resources are applied as best as possible through “analysis, feedback, evaluation, calibration and adjustment” as well as sound risk-based judgement.

Next is measurement, referred to as “the main tool of implementation” because it feeds back information that can be used to improve and adjust service delivery on the fly:

“Public managers and civil servants should begin by deciding on the managerial purposes to which performance measurement may contribute. Only then can they select a set of performance measures with the characteristics necessary to help them achieve these purposes.”

The CPI chooses “alignment” between the interests of key actors who are “required to make change happen” as the third element of effective implementation. A sense of a shared purpose must be developed between everyone whose actions will contribute to the level of public impact achieved, and each to be properly equipped and motivated to play their part.

Public impact is clearly the ultimate aim of government but achieving it is much, much easier said than done. In recognition of this, the CPI explains its framework of fundamentals simply aims to contribute to a shared understanding of how governments can get traction instead of just spinning the wheels so often:

“They are intended to provide a structured method for making targeted interventions and increasing the chances of success.

“In this way, they can be seen as a maximisation tool: increasing performance on any single element increases the chances of a positive outcome, even if all other elements are held constant. They can also be used as a differentiation tool, which allows policymakers to assess the likely performance of a number of alternative worlds and pick the initiative that stands the best chance of succeeding.”

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Warwick Jay
Warwick Jay
5 years ago

Most compelling sentence in the article: ‘Engagement of course requires navigating a minefield of lobby groups with undue political power.’

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