The OECD’s Rolf Alter on improving public sector performance

Heading up the OECD’s Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate means that Rolf Alter doesn’t lack for responsibilities. Where to start? Budgeting and public spending; public sector corruption; digital government; risk management – the list goes on.

But while Alter confirms that multitasking is a prerequisite, he goes on to say that the biggest shift he has witnessed since joining the OECD in 1991 is how globalisation has continued to evolve, bucking previously held expectations of how it would develop. “We are grappling with a very different type of globalisation than was anticipated,” he admits. “There is also a greater degree of integration that has taken place in economic terms around the world. The OECD is a group of 34 countries, but deals with another 50 countries on a daily basis. Today, what happens in Shanghai and Beijing is a global issue. This type of interactivity and interdependence has changed the framework for public policies tremendously since the early 1990s.”

Gateway to governments

The key focus of Alter’s directorate is the pursuit of good policy practices, highlighting what has worked for governments in areas such as institutional reform, innovation and transparency. No issue is too small for his 150-strong team to target, it transpires. “We seek to strengthen governments every day in every component of government machinery that needs improvement,” he says. “We’re trying to be supportive of our member countries in their quest to be more responsive to citizens, which is a very large task, these days in particular.”

Sharing stories of cross-border success, he continues, is key to driving performance. “We are trying to support countries by telling them what other countries are doing,” he explains. “It’s not just about looking in the mirror and being happy about how your economy has grown by 3%, because really it should be about learning from those countries that have grown by 5% at the same time. So it’s important to keep looking hard at what is happening elsewhere. Secondly, the focus on the citizen is easily said, but not so easy to implement, and this is what we would also seek to improve in most of our countries.”

Alter is speaking from a position of considerable experience. Prior to his current role he served as chief of staff to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría and has previously held different positions in the Economics Department and the Department of Financial, Fiscal and Enterprise Affairs. With stints at the IMF and Germany’s Ministry of Economy also on his cv, it is clear that he has accumulated much knowledge of the fluctuating landscape facing governments. Alter, though, is keen to stress that despite our interconnected world, each country faces its own set of bespoke challenges.

“Different countries do different things better than others,” he points out. “Every country has its own background and its own social, historical and economic set of circumstances. The point is that it’s important to compare what your current practices are and whether they measure up to the good practices elsewhere, and it is these that we are trying to identify.”

Citizens first

As part of its mission to promote policies that will improve the economic and social wellbeing of people around the world, the OECD collects and analyses data, using these insights to underpin recommendations for policymakers to consider.

A good example is a Gallup poll that uncovered declining levels of trust between citizens and their governments. Although the public’s expectations of government are continuously rising, between 2007 and 2012 confidence in national governments shifted downwards from 45% to 40% on average. Alter believes that “there are many reasons” for this decline, arguing that there is still some way to go before policies are truly citizen-centric. “At the moment it is often like a manufacturer producing cars for the market without asking if customers actually want to buy them,” he says.

He goes on to suggest that the Gallup figures need to be seen as an opportunity to start conversations about how to share experiences and improve the delivery and quality of public services. “Government leaders need to live by the policy cycle. The delivery process is just one piece of a chain that will improve policies, but it is only one element. If they do not make reference to proper assessments, if they do not include the participation of citizens and if they do not have some kind of implementation mechanisms then the results will always be deficient. So policymakers should think about their policy, why they want it and how they actually plan to achieve their objectives. Not many countries assess how their policies work in practice. So delivery is important, but governments need to look at what they are delivering.”

Similarly, the ongoing push among many governments for open data and greater transparency is another priority being supported by Alter and his team. But he believes that more time needs to be taken to consider what type of transparency should be promoted. “The question is how we organise governments to be more transparent,” he says. “Are people ready to live with genuine transparency? And is it transparency focused on improving policies or transparency focused on just sharing data. Open data is a beautiful concept but we need to go beyond the headlines and actually consider what it should mean in practical terms.”

Playing the long game

Alter – much like the policymakers he works with around the world – faces a constant challenge to balance short-term priorities with longer-term objectives. Leaders’ political ambitions and timelines must be squared with the practical reality that policies often take many years to achieve the desired impact. That said, he is clear that more governments need to consider how the world will look 10, 15 or 25 years from now, and cites demographic changes to illustrate his point.

“Ageing is probably the most important long-term trend that you can reasonably predict,” he says. “And even though it’s not very complicated, governments are still grappling with how to respond to a world where there will be far larger numbers of older people in society. It’s not just delivery but the type of policies that will be needed to cope with these changes.”

This means that policymakers need to adapt their mindset. The focus, he believes, should be on translating their action into short-term priorities while at the same time maintaining a consistent direction of travel that addresses long-term trends. “There are some countries where this mix exists – long-term goals are broken down into actionable promises to the electorate to be delivered on,” he says. “So, it can be done and the question then becomes how to do this process well. And that’s where an organisation like the OECD can really help. The result will be a more positive impact for countries around the world.”

 

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