A few weeks ago I went along to an Institute of Policy Studies lunchtime seminar on the performance management of state sector organisations. It was given by Derek Gill (whose working paper The Future State
I wrote about
a few months ago) and Susan Hitchiner.
The seminar was reporting on the IPS’s Managing for Organisational Performance research project, which is a sort of stocktake of the system of public sector accountability put in place in New Zealand by the Public Finance Act and the State Sector Act in 1980s.
I found it dense but worthwhile. It was definitely intended for quite a particular audience, though: one that is really immersed in the system of Annual Reports, Statements of Intents, outcome measurement etc that make up the current formal accountability framework for the public sector.
This got me thinking about how — and whether — this connects to the kind of things we’ve been talking about and hoping to achieve here at Policy Progress.
In theory, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. I certainly believe that the public service (a) understanding what you’re trying to do, (b) being committed to making it work, and (c) having the capability to back that up, are all vital ingredients for any progressive government’s agenda.
And an accountability framework could potentially be a valuable means to ensuring that.
And yet, I detect a twinge of disappointment from Gill and Hitchiner about politicians’ actual engagement with, and attitudes towards, the detailed and resource-intensive accountability framework that has been erected for their benefit over the last twenty years. As Gill gently puts it, “Ministers use of performance information was variable as their political leadership role requires a selective focus on a few issues.” Rather than working systematically through an department’s Statement of Service Performance and ensuring that they’re performing well across the board, Ministers seemed to want to concentrate on certain key things that they wanted to achieve, or where they felt at risk.
And similarly with Parliament. They get such a wealth of systematic and comprehensive information across the whole range of departmental activities, but do they use it properly? Gill reports “Little systematic use of performance information due to Ladley’s iron rule of political contest”. He then elucidated this nice turn of phrase from Andrew Ladley (who himself spent nearly three years in the Beehive as Chief of Staff of the Alliance party) with a quote from ex-State Services Commisioner Mark Prebble’s new book: “Parliament uses performance information not to improve the Executive’s performance but in order to attack the Executive”.
Gill and Hitchiner are not surprised by this and understand and accept the dynamics at work. But you still get the feeling it’s a bit of a pity.
Even so, this doesn’t seem to be a major impediment. If politicians don’t care about and utilise the public management system we’ve erected, then we’ll identify others who do. As the discussion continues, they explain how the accountability framework can best be used by some public servants (chief executives, control agencies) to monitor and manage other public servants.
Listening to this, I begin to wonder: who does “we” mean in all of this? A lot of those in the room weren’t public servants (many were academics), yet they all seemed interested and heavily invested in a system for keeping the wheels of government running smoothly and effectively in a way that largely abstracted from any kind of political contest (or “the authorising environment”, as they call it).
At one point Susan Hitchiner even talked about “reducing political contest in relation to outcomes” (although, to be fair, I’m not entirely clear if she was actually advocating that). This got me thinking about how far removed the discussion (erudite and thoughtful as it was on its own terms) was from addressing the needs and aspirations of people trying to develop and then implement a progressive agenda. (And presumably it was equally remote from our opposite numbers on the other side of politics.)
Let’s leave aside the idea of taking the politics out of which outcomes to pursue and prioritise (which can only be done by expressing them in such a generic motherhood-and-apple-pie way as to make them meaningless). Even the idea of depoliticising the supposedly ‘technical’ process of how to most effectively achieve our desired outcome is fraught. In my view, it misunderstands the nature of many of the difference between political ideologies.
Progressives differ from conservatives not just on what kind of society they want to achieve, but also (in some ways moreso) on the best and most appropriate means to deliver that.
The currently quite topical issue of public-private partnerships offers a good illustration of this. From a technocratic perspective, this is but one means to a desired end. It can thus be evaluated quite dispassionately on objective criteria, and an assessment made about its suitability in a particular context.
But this does not adequately capture why many conservatives are so keen to pursue this avenue. Nor why many progressives are so opposed to it. Those reasons are intricately bound up with ideas about the relative roles (and efficacy) of the public and private sectors that are quite fundamental to both political perspectives. They are not likely to be dislodged by citing one or two research findings for or against.
(I’m not saying here that political positions are completely unresponsive to empirical evidence. Over time, various assumptions that have been held by one or other political perspective have in fact been largely discarded in response to the weight of evidence and experience. But political partisans will be, quite properly, slow and cautious about making such a shift, and expect a high standard of proof.)
So, what does this mean for a system of public management that seeks to make public sector organisations accountable for delivering on the electoral mandate given to a progressive (or other) political programme? It needs to accept, as Gill and Hitchiner have recognised, that such programmes are not strongly concerned with managing business-as-usual (which is inevitably encompasses a large proportion of a departments’ activity), though they will want to have confidence that this is being well-managed.
An accountability framework needs to provide politicians with an easy-to-use mechanism for holding agencies accountable for carrying out their progamme, as they conceive it. To do this, it needs to be responsive to the inevitable and legitimate fact that programme will encompass a mix of: broad outcomes or aspirations; particular outputs or initiatives (perhaps ones that party activists have championed within the party’s manifesto process); plus some views or preferences as to which ways of achieving things are effective or appropriate.
This is probably much less tidy than the traditional framework, but it is also more responsive to the democratic process that the system of accountability is supposed to serve.
With this is mind, there may be some value in dialogue between the public administration experts seeking to reform and reframe our system of public management and those of us thinking about public service effectiveness in relation to a particular political project. Such an exchange might enrich both group’s agendas.
PS Many Policy Progress readers will be interested to learn that the Institute of Policy Studies has also announced a full-day policy forum for 16 November entitled Does Inequality Matter? and featuring a keynote speech from one of the authors of The Spirit Level. Visit the IPS website to learn more and to book for this free event.