NZ shows way for public sector productivity

The New Zealand Productivity Commission was asked by its Government to provide guidance and recommendations on measuring and improving productivity in public services, especially education, health, justice and social welfare which play an important role in promoting individual and community well-being

The Commission interviewed multiple current and former senior state sector leaders, carried out case studies to demonstrate how to measure productivity in public services, and commissioned research to better understand how
innovation, the engine of productivity improvement, occurs and spreads in
public services

The Commission produced two final reports:

The following is their summary of their findings

Higher state sector productivity is critical to delivering more and better public services now and into the future, yet many government agencies lack the culture, capability and encouragement to make these gains

“Faced with demand for more services, the public sector often relies on hiring more people – that strategy is not sustainable” says Commission Chair Murray Sherwin

“Getting the best value out of existing resources requires good information, measurement of performance, openness to new ways of working, and an environment committed to making improvements”

“The Commission saw examples of good and innovative practices within the state sector. Examples include primary health care models which make better use of nursing staff skills to meet patient needs better and faster, and use of data to test which employment training programmes actually make a difference to people’s lives”

“But there are too many barriers to these sorts of practices emerging and spreading:

  • Few government agencies measure the productivity of their services
  • Some lack the capability or inclination to do so
  • Many are risk-averse and through prescriptive and inflexible commissioning arrangements, make it difficult for contracted service providers to innovate
  • The Government’s budget system tends to reinforce ‘business-as-usual’ activities instead of new and innovative approaches”

“Making progress on public sector productivity will require action by ministers, central agencies such as the Treasury, and departmental leaders”

In particular, Ministers need to start asking questions about productivity performance and setting clearer expectations for improvement – they should:

  • Establish and support a network to help build expertise in measuring productivity
  • Reshape the annual budget system to devote more money over time to high-quality initiatives that have a high probability of making a big difference to well-being, and less money to ‘business as usual’ proposals
  • Report annually on performance measures for key public services
  • Review existing public service funding models and where feasible, move to approaches that pay for results or outcomes, not inputs
  • Renew its processes for assessing the performance of state organisations, to test how well their cultures, values and practices support innovation

“This inquiry has demonstrated, through case studies and other investigations, that measuring and tracking productivity in public services is quite feasible”

Higher state productivity matters for better, sustainable public services – it allows a
community to have more or better services or lower taxes – it also contributes to
higher national productivity and, through that, to higher incomes and a larger tax base – and, as New Zealand’s people age, there will be more people
needing assistance and a smaller share of the population working and available to
provide services or pay taxes

However, there are seven major barriers to higher state sector productivity and available evidence, while limited, suggests recent state sector productivity growth has been poor:

Barrier 1 – Not enough demand for measures
It is difficult to understand and improve something that has not been measured yet
measurement of public service productivity is relatively uncommon – some agencies
do not ask the right questions or do not make good use of available information,
and politicians typically do not ask for productivity information

Barrier 2 – Hostility to measurement
Some who work in the state sector are hostile to the concept of
‘productivity’ or ‘efficiency’ in public services and resist its measurement – they argue that such measurement would be a distraction from their core business, or
have perverse impacts

Barrier 3 – Closed, risk-averse cultures in government agencies
Achieving productivity improvements in public services often means doing things
differently, such as using technology better – yet many government agencies are risk-averse, closed to ideas from outside and poor at managing change

Barrier 4 – Poor policy and commissioning practice
Effective commissioning ensures services are designed to best meet the needs of users but government agencies often take very conservative approaches to commissioning services, leading to ineffective delivery and waste

Barrier 5 – Restrictive rules and funding models
Innovation and productivity often depend on changing the mix of people,
technologies, and other resources used to deliver services – however, service units face rules or policies that limit their ability to make these changes

Barrier 6 – Few budgetary rewards for productivity
Annual budgets provide relatively little encouragement for productivity gains – the majority of existing spending is not regularly reviewed and a large share of new funding allocated goes towards ‘business as usual’ activities rather than new
and better approaches

Barrier 7 – Patchy monitoring, evaluation and data use
Finally, government agencies often make poor or little use of available data and
information which means they may not fully meet the needs of users or
officials may not know which services are ineffective, and need improvement

So the Commission recommend the following action to lift productivity performance
across the state sector

Action 1 – Set clearer expectations for productivity gains
Ministers can play an important role in lifting performance by setting clear
expectations for public services and demanding more information about productivity

Action 2 – Build the capability to measure, and measure more
Build up measurement capability within government agencies as this is currently weak – establish and support a network of capable officials to share experience and build expertise in state sector productivity measurement

Action 3 – Report on core public service efficiency
Much public sector information is not very useful for measuring changes in productivity – regular collection and publication of information on expenditure on key public services (e.g. annual per-client or unit costs for schooling, court trials etc.) would provide transparency needed and strengthen incentives on agencies and providers to seek ongoing improvements

Action 4 – Use performance measures wisely
There is a place for well-designed quantitative productivity measures in public sector performance frameworks, as they help provide a more balanced picture of performance

Action 5 – Raise the bar on new spending in the budget
The Commission recommends a set of reforms to increase the rewards
for productivity and service improvements:

  • Set aside a share of each year’s allocation of new funding for initiatives that have a high probability of making a significant impact on social well-being, and gradually increase this share over time. To qualify, these initiatives would need to have robust business cases, strong supporting evidence and clear evaluation plans
  • Tighten the link between past performance and future allocations from the budget. The annual budget round is supposed to test how well agencies have used their existing resources, but has lacked consequences for poor past performance. Agencies should only be able to access the ‘high impact initiative’ share of the budget allocation if they could credibly demonstrate they had made productivity gains from their baselines
  • Retain and strengthen a separate avenue for organisations outside the public service to make budget bids. Non-government organisations and the private sector are important sources of innovative ideas and processes, but can face hostile or unreceptive public agencies. Allowing these organisations to make proposals directly, without the approval of departments, removes roadblocks and exposes ministers to a wider range of ideas and proposals
  • Pay for results, not inputs – In many core public services, funding models encourage increases in inputs (e.g. staff) or volumes (e.g. student numbers). These models provide certainty for providers and can support access, but offer limited rewards for innovation, are often restrictive and can have perverse impacts. By comparison, results or outcome-based funding models provide more flexibility and more incentive for productivity gains

Conclusion – One can’t help thinking Professor C. Northcote Parkinson would agree with much of what they say

P.S.1 – One could substitute UK for NZ in all the above and the messages would still be the same

P.S.2 – Hence, there are many good lessons the UK, and others, could learn from it

P.S.3 – The UK still has no equivalent to the NZ Productivity Commission to come up with such weighty reports – our media should be forever banging a drum for ministers to create and support one, and encouraging tax-payers to ask “WHY NOT?”

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.