Type “Government failure example” into Google and you get more than 13 million results. Now, this is clearly a somewhat arbitrary test – policymakers would doubtless point towards many positive achievements – but, equally, there is little doubt that many good ideas in government often struggle when implemented. The launch of HealthCare.gov in the US is one example. Another is the problems surrounding welfare reform in the UK. It’s been called the “policy-implementation gap” and it’s an issue that continues to resonate globally.
To examine why government policies often falter at the delivery stage, BCG has interviewed senior government figures from around the world, all of whom agree that implementation is both vitally important and a real weakness for government. And in our subsequent global survey of 1,000 public officials, 92% of respondents said there was room for improvement in how government achieves impact, with nearly half agreeing that government was ineffective in this regard. This result was remarkably consistent across the 29 countries surveyed and across different policy areas and levels of seniority.
The impact imperative
It is important to note that the occupants of today’s corridors of power are confronted by a deeply challenging environment. The financial crisis continues to cast a long shadow, leaving government budgets drained of funds and forcing many policymakers to implement extensive deficit reduction proposals – under fierce public, political and media scrutiny. Demographic changes and lower than expected tax revenues are also placing further pressure on public-sector balance sheets.
Governments are facing increasing and often diverging voices in the public arena. Think tanks, academic institutions, NGOs, media commentators and consultancies offer different perspectives on policy and implementation, as well as the impact achieved. The movement towards open data and greater transparency similarly means that outsiders are often at least as well-informed as insiders on the performance of public-sector systems.
And at the same time, the public’s expectations of government are continuously rising and, if these expectations are not met, legitimacy declines. Between 2007 and 2012, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40% on average, according to the OECD. This in turn undermines the willingness of populations to support public institutions through taxation and to participate in the democratic process.
This is what we refer to as the “impact imperative”. If the performance of government can’t be improved it faces a future of increasing fiscal stress, rising scrutiny, and declining public trust and legitimacy.
While few governments, if any, are wholly impact-orientated, there are examples of governments that are demonstrating what is possible and from whom others can learn. Singapore, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries are regularly highlighted as having particularly effective systems of public administration (although it should be noted that all these countries have populations less than 10 million). Similarly, there are good examples of city governments that have embraced a focus on impact and outcomes, such as New York, Baltimore and Copenhagen.
Trends are also fostering a greater focus on impact. Digital technology offers new possibilities for services to be transformed through open data and makes it far easier to build flexible services around the needs of users. And government labs are helping to foster a new, more innovative mindset and bringing evidence to bear as well as testing new techniques such as those based on behavioural insights.
The challenge for any senior public official or politician is understanding how to make sense of these different examples and trends. To start to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and pragmatically improve the performance of their own organisations.
Launching the Centre for Public Impact
This year BCG is launching the Centre for Public Impact, a not-for-profit global foundation, dedicated to improving the positive impact of governments. We will bring together world leaders to learn, exchange ideas and inspire each other to achieve better results.
The Centre for Public Impact will be overseen by a Board of Trustees co-chaired by Sir Michael Barber, the former head of the UK Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, and Hans-Paul Bürkner, the Chairman of BCG. Our Advisory Board is comprised of independent, international experts in public service delivery. Sharing insights from around the world, our global events, round tables and website will highlight what has worked and where challenges require new approaches. Our findings will be shared to help governments and their partners gain a greater understanding of what works and why.
We believe that improving the impact of government is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. We at the Centre for Public Impact are looking forward to playing our part in bringing this issue to the fore and helping policymakers deliver better outcomes for citizens around the world. Let’s get to work.
- Malaysia on the march. Dato Sri Idris Jala is tasked with overseeing Malaysia’s sweeping government and economic reforms; he tells us about a role rooted in delivery and implementation.
- Measure for measure. Melanie Walker explains how overseeing the World Bank Group’s delivery unit is underpinned by the aim to free a billion people from the grip of extreme poverty
- The time to deliver is now. Sir Michael Barber reflects on the lessons learned and insights gained from a career at the heart of government delivery
- Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
- Beltway and beyond. Former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams, shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
- From vision to reality. Government leaders worldwide share the objective of making an impact and getting things done but it’s rarely straightforward – Hans-Paul Buerkner offers some advice
- The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, who explains why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers