A matter of public trust: measuring how government performs

Gai Brodtmann at the Sydney Morning Herald:”…Getting trust is hard. Losing it is easy. And the work of maintaining trust in our democracy, and the public institutions it rests on, is constant, quiet and careful.

That trust is built on accountability and transparency. It relies on an assurance that government programs are well managed and delivered efficiently and effectively to give the best results for Australians.

And it demands impartial adjudicators to provide that assurance.

The first is getting the metrics, the key performance indicators, right. The indicators should be a fundamental way of judging whether a program is being implemented effectively and achieving its aims. If significant variations from expected performance are observed, it’s a sure sign that closer examination of the program is needed.

A lot of effort has gone into indicators in recent years. Progress has been made, but everyone recognises the issue is complex. Establishing meaningful indicators, which are aligned across and up and down agencies, and become business as usual, is not easy. And it cannot be done independently of other public sector reform.

Cultural change is inevitably at the heart of all these discussions and two aspects of that strike me. The first is risk-aversion. The second is the silo problem.

A crucial challenge in overcoming a too-timid approach to doing business is that we do not, on the whole, have incentives in the system that encourage taking risks. In fact, many of the incentives do the opposite….

But a more balanced risk-management culture will only germinate if both the government and the Parliament – including its committees – change their ways to recognise that innovative policy design and complex program implementation needs to embrace risk to be successful.

The second aspect of cultural change is the problem of too many silos. Perhaps, in some simpler past, public service agencies could generally operate with exclusive rights and functions within their own well-defined boundaries. But as social and economic challenges become more complex, this isn’t feasible.

Modern government in Australia is still coming to grips with this new imperative. Programs often involve multi-agency collaboration across jurisdictions, where the boundaries are well and truly crossed both within jurisdictions and across them. Unsurprisingly, ensuring a consistent approach and assessing outcomes has been difficult to achieve.

Collaboration between different entities is not strange to the private sector. One lesson we can draw is that, in collaborations, it is important to have a clear line of authority and control….(More)”