What you measure affects what you do. If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing. ‒ JOSEPH STIGLITZ

For decades, the “blame game” characterized relations between central oversight functions and ministries, departments, and agencies working in earnest to serve citizens. Both marshalled evidence cherry picked from audits, evaluations, and experts to claim higher ground. Stakeholders reserved judgment on the efficacy of good intentions depicted in idealized arguments of accountability.

But what are the implications of accountability in today’s dynamic, complex operating contexts? Learning organizations collaborate across institutions, sectors, and boundaries to contribute to a holistic vision of the “innovation nation”. Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society was, in part, grounded in action learning and accountability for results.

Outcomes are the North Star of evidence-informed policy making. Evidence helps make sense of different policy options, trade-offs, impacts, timescales, and uncertainties. A modern public service engages with politicians, citizens, stakeholders, and knowledge communities to co-create effective solutions.

The extent to which organizations learn from incremental progress towards desired ends needs to be understood. If governing bodies want real accountability, lessons learned must be imparted in   accountability stories. Otherwise, learning remains a passenger in a vehicle driven by blame. The advent of autonomous vehicles may free space to reconcile learning and blame.

New Zealand’s interagency performance targets

Governments often segment work into smaller administrative units, each with a narrower, more manageable focus. Cross-boundary problems challenge agencies to work together while continuously improving performance. Setting targets can promote siloed operations and discourage cooperation across a variety of contexts. Agencies may turn inward when helping others does not contribute to achieving their own targets.

New Zealand has a large number of single-purpose agencies that have historically found it difficult to collaborate. The aftereffects of the 2008 global economic crisis constrained government’s drive to find ways to make public services more effective without greater spending. Public servants were pushed to creatively overcome persistent cross-agency challenges.

In 2012, ministers chose ten crosscutting problems that were important to New Zealanders and set challenging five-year targets. Agency heads were held collectively responsible for achieving interagency performance targets. The new system, described in the media as the most significant change to public service delivery in 20 years, was called “The 10 Results”.

1. Reduce the number of people continuously receiving Jobseeker Support benefits for more than 12 months.
2. Increase participation in early childhood education.
3. Increase infant immunisation rates and reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever.
4. Reduce the number of assaults on children.
5. Increase the proportion of 18-year-olds with a high school diploma or equivalent qualification.
6. Increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas, and degrees.
7. Reduce the rates of total crime, violent crime, and youth crime.
8. Reduce the criminal re-offending rate.
9. Support business operations and growth with a one-stop online shop for all government advice.
10. Complete citizen transactions with government more easily in a digital environment.
Source: Interagency Performance Targets.pdf (businessofgovernment.org), 7-8.

Dramatic improvements were achieved in all ten areas by 2017, with progress reported publicly every six months. Evaluations revealed successful design features, management innovations, and adaptations by public servants responsible for achieving the targets. The box below lists thirteen practice insights.

PRACTICE INSIGHTS ON ADDRESSING CROSSCUTTING PROBLEMS USING INTERAGENCY PERFORMANCE TARGETS Selecting Results • Focus on a few problems • Involve other agencies in selecting problems to be addressed • Build on existing relationships when selecting results to pursue • Measure intermediate outcomes • Align results, targets, and measures • Commit publicly Designing Accountability • Hold leaders collectively responsible • Get started and learn by doing Managing Collaboration • Start simply • Limit group size • Signal shared responsibility Reporting on Progress • Report on trends • Share success stories Source: Interagency Performance Targets.pdf (businessofgovernment.org), 32.

Lessons for managers

Results-based management relies on systems that inform the right balance between autonomy and accountability. The benefits are greatest when outcomes are reported to ministers and governing bodies. Behind-the-scenes political and policy aims sometimes supplant stated claims of better service and increased operating efficiencies as the outcomes worth measuring. A handful of key outcome measures and best-in-class benchmarks need to be tracked and independently validated.

While Canadians believe that government’s job is tougher than that of business, people’s expectations of government continue to be higher. Whole-of-government indicators must capture a range of dimensions that balances multiple stakeholder interests. Citizens want access to information that sets the context, reflects home-grown values, highlights current trends, shows steady progress, assesses comparative data, and enables grasp by various audiences.

Learning is a sustainable organizational advantage that leads to good governance. The aim is to cost-effectively establish the basis of good practice that can be promoted and replicated. Public management tools and techniques influence wider accountability reforms. While practices may need to be adapted and tested to fit local context, they offer useful guideposts for managers to follow.

The road ahead calls for managers to refresh performance frameworks with new results that solve difficult problems. This means:

  • Teaching the performance basics of baselines, targets, outcomes, impacts, and logic models;
  • Challenging western concepts of evidence and attribution against Indigenous experience;
  • Cascading senior-level performance plans throughout the organization;
  • Exploring how national approaches can be replicated to address regional and local problems; and
  • Reporting progress publicly, knowing that citizens are the best test of success.