The management of resources has always been taken for granted in Canada’s public sector. However, now more than ever, Canada’s public service executives need to devote equal and formal attention to results as well as resources.
If taken in the literal sense, this concept of results management applies to every kind of program, at every organizational level, for every jurisdiction. Yet, it is well known that varying degrees of a performance measurement framework are utilized to achieve this desired strategy.
While the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat suggests that performance reporting and management depend on distinctions between inputs, outputs, outcomes and indicators, benchmarking within leading edge organizations shows that indicators are the empirical measurement tools. Hence, the thrust of performance measurement is to draw attention to “outcomes” which ultimately matters the most, and link them to inputs (resources) with activities and outputs.
However, when examined more closely, performance measurement is more than simply “measuring impacts.” It entails a management regime that requires an organization to have a clear idea of its objectives, along with a regular means of reporting its success. Ideally, public sector managers should consider performance measurement as part of a larger management regime, which attempts to link ongoing results with strategic planning, budgeting and resource allocation.
Clarity and knowledge
While performance measurement is difficult enough in its own right, what is particularly challenging is the context of non-commercial programs, essentially federal programs. Thus, to get to the heart of measuring performance, clarity and consensus of objectives is required, as well as an understanding of how the organization’s actions contribute to outputs and outcomes.
Since performance measurement assesses the success of a program, it is vital to understand the program and its intended objectives. The difficulty associated with this task is gleaning the various perspectives from key organizational staff and then translating these perspectives into a coherent picture.
The first and most important step in developing a performance measurement framework is to take the program apart: analyze it, dissect it, and break it up conceptually into its component parts. This requires a clear understanding of the program’s objectives and how these are linked to the mandate of the organization.
However, even when a program is explicit regarding its intended outcomes, selecting indicators is not automatic. Without agreement from stakeholders, there is a risk that inappropriate performance will be encouraged. Successful performance measurement depends, in part, on finding credible indicators that define the importance of a program, and that can be successfully measured. Theoretically, if programs are found to be under-performing, those resources should be reallocated to other programs that have demonstrated public benefits.
As pointed out by Canada’s Auditor General, over the last 10 years measurement in the public sector has become less about precision and more about increasing our understanding and knowledge about what works, and subsequently reducing the uncertainty about program impacts. Since there is the need to be realistic about program outcomes, there is also a need to acknowledge other factors at play that may influence these outcomes. Moreover, it is more strategically imperative to acknowledge that influences exist, rather than pretending otherwise.
Increasingly, there is recognition that such measurement has its limitations, perhaps implying that we should accept some uncertainty about the unavailability of performance measures in some cases. When it is absolutely necessary to have a high degree of certainty regarding a program’s contribution, it becomes even more crucial to ensure rigour within the measurement process.
The totality of the evidence gathered – some of it strong, some perhaps rather weak – should be utilized by public sector managers to build a credible performance story. Going forward, public sector managers need to develop an alternative methodology based on industry-benchmarked best practices that entail the following:
• Providing a well-articulated outline of the context of the program and its general aims, along with its strategies to achieve those ends;
• Presenting a plausible program theory leading to the program’s overall aims;
• Describing the activities and outputs produced by the program;
• Highlighting the results and demonstrating there is an association between what the program has done and the outcomes observed; and
• Developing reasonable explanations for the outcome(s) that take into consideration external factors, or clearly demonstrating any influence such factors have had on the outcome(s) in question.
Clear Vision for Best Results, the Financial Management of Canada’s Professional Development Week 2014, is November 25-28 at the Ottawa Convention Centre.