Results matter in the public sector, particularly in these challenging times of fiscal restraint, expenditure reductions, and rethinking of program and service delivery.
But will these results we are expecting link to the policy, program and administrative decisions we make, including the need to cut costs? Are management teams demonstrating the necessary leadership and strategies that take advantage of what results-based management (RBM) offers?
On the other hand, can we afford RBM in the current fiscal climate? Is RBM still relevant, or does it belong safely “in a zoo” as an endangered species that everyone watches with curiosity?
Some experts contend that we are in good shape, given previous investments in the management results and results structures (MRRS) policy and other forms of performance measurement and reporting initiatives.
Perhaps it is instructive to look at whether our collective RBM efforts and practices are good enough for these challenging times. One way to do this is to look at the government’s own annual Management Accountability Framework (MAF) assessments of departmental performance, conducted since 2003 by Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS). While measurement structure and focus have evolved, a number of the areas of management (AOM) and supporting lines of evidence address the use of performance/results information in decision-making, including a managing for results AOM that includes several relevant measures.
Results for the most recent year assessed (2011-12) suggest that all is going reasonably well for most departments and agencies: of the 41 larger organizations assessed, well over 50 percent were rated as “acceptable,” meaning that TBS expectations were met, with no serious deficiencies found. However, three areas of improvement were identified:
• Results and resources information is not consistently being used to support departmental and central agency decision-making, such as in Memoranda to Cabinet: strategic outcomes at times are not clear, nor are they measurable or reported upon. The Program Alignment Architecture (PAA) should allow for more granularity and facilitate identification of expected results for strong reporting to Parliament. Many programs do not meet the definition of what a program is, and should be strengthened by clearly articulating the benefits to Canadians of delivering it.
• Performance reporting, including to Parliament, can be improved. Departmental Performance Reports (DPRs) would benefit from greater discussion of challenges in achieving results, and more balance in the discussion of negative outcomes from programs. Lessons learned should provide solutions to challenges and possible ways to strengthen programs that are not performing as expected. Results in the DPR often vary from those identified in the Report on Plans and Priorities (RPP) and greater consistency is needed. More data sources and factual, independently verifiable information to substantiate performance claims should be provided, along with more comparison and trend information.
• Quality of performance measurement frameworks is frequently inconsistent. Expected results do not always represent clear outcome statements and are often activity-based. At times there is no clear relationship between the department’s PAA and its expected results, particularly at sub-activity levels. Certain performance indicators are not the best measures of the expected results – a stronger link between them is required.
Departments, agencies and TBS should be commended for progress in management improvement achieved by using MAF assessments, including through the use of RBM information. But there is a risk that given the current priority assigned by the government to meeting significant Strategic and Operating Review and Deficit Reduction Action Plan targets, the support and use of RBM and performance measurement will diminish. It is now frequently cited as part of an onerous corporate “oversight, compliance and reporting burden” that must be critically examined, if not reduced or streamlined.
Driving further improvements to the use of RBM information for decision-making will not only help organizations make further improvements to programs and services that could operate more effectively, but also increase Canadians’ appreciation of the value of what the public service accomplishes. Yes, we should look for ways to make RBM more efficient and innovative, but let’s not make RBM an “endangered species” at a time when it’s most needed.
Art Stewart is a management consultant, a retired senior executive from Treasury Board Secretariat and a board member of PPX (firstname.lastname@example.org).