Government. For many in the US – and around the world – it is a word that provokes a grimace or eye roll. To them, government represents tax dollars gone to waste. Or armies of faceless ‘bureaucrats’ pushing paper. That government also represents crucial public services like education, health care and transport matters little or not at all. For them, government is something to be endured, rather than savoured, ignored rather than cherished. Shelley Metzenbaum, however, is on a mission to prove otherwise.
No-one could accuse her of not knowing her subject. A veteran of senior roles across federal, state and local government, her most recent position saw her installed as director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the US, a role that afforded her extensive oversight across the machinery of the federal government. She admits to an element of frustration that government doesn’t always garner the credit it deserves.
“Rising education; transportation and workplace safety; more accurate and timely weather forecasts,” she says. “Government has been remarkably successful contributing to better conditions in the world in these and many other areas but its role is seldom recognised. Unfortunately, government lacks the sort of brand identification that reminds people how often government makes their lives better.”
Government performance: time for a pick-up
In 2013, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, created The Volcker Alliance, an organisation that aims to “address the challenge of effective execution of public policies”, as well as restore trust in government. It is clear that Metzenbaum, its founding president and now senior advisor, and her colleagues have much to do.
For example, a recent Pew Research Center study found that just 24% of Americans trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’. By contrast, far more (75%) say they trust government ‘only some of the time’ or ‘never’. It’s quite a finding. Perhaps it can be traced to the high profiles that failures or problems receive in the media – government shutdowns, congressional gridlock and administrative scandals like the GSA affair all spring to mind. But whatever the causes, it is clear these views are deep-rooted. So, what can be done to reverse these trends?
Key to a reversal is “keeping the people who work in government connected with the people whom government serves,” says Metzenbaum. “The best way to establish that connection and keep it strong is outcomes-focused management: setting goals focused on the outcomes or conditions that mean something to people and matter in their lives – such as accidents and other aspects of safety, security, health problems, graduations rates and water quality – and then pairing the goals with meaningful, outcome-aligned measurement. That keeps government attentive to what matters in people’s lives today and in the future, both good and bad. It also helps the public understand what government does and why.”
Goals and data are not enough, she cautions. “A disciplined commitment to data-informed decision-making must be embraced, with government regularly analysing data it and others collect to find patterns, differences, and relationships, then asking questions to figure out where to focus and how to improve.” Beyond that, she notes, “Government needs to communicate internally and to the public what it is trying to accomplish – why, how, and how well. Then it needs to engage others in finding ways to achieve better outcomes along multiple dimensions, including beneficial impact, ROI, the quality of people’s interactions with government, and fairness.”
This is easier said than done, she concedes. “It is easier to manage what government does – such as the number of permits issued, inspections conducted, students taught, miles of road repaired, and number of contracts, grants, or regulations completed – than what it seeks to accomplish.” But, she warns, serious problems arise when government retreats to managing activities rather than outcomes. “When that happens, government employees tend to lose touch with their organisation’s purpose, whether better air quality, fewer illnesses or assuring young people have the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive. Beyond that, over-emphasising activities inhibits the inclination to innovate. People will do what they already know how to do rather than continually searching for the right kind and mix of activities to accomplish more mission for the money and adapt to different situations.”
It is not surprising that many government employees prefer to be held accountable for the activities they can control rather than for outcomes they can only influence. There is a very real possibility that they will be criticised for not meeting specific goals or for trying an innovative approach that fails. Both situations are expected in healthy organisations where inspiring ‘stretch goals’ are not all met because, by definition, they are hard to meet and where failed tests of new products are an inevitable part of the discovery and improvement process. “Unfortunately,” she laments, “in government, missed targets and failed trials are fodder for reporters and political opponents looking for attack opportunities.”
In fact, when a government agency meets most of its targets most of the time, Metzenbaum suspects a problem. “I question whether these organisations are setting sufficiently ambitious goals – the kind that will inspire, motivate, and encourage discovery. President John F. Kennedy understood the power of a stretch target when he set a goal of landing a man on the moon in a decade and returning him safely back home. So did Swedish leaders when they adopted the Vision Zero goal of traffic safety in 1994, believing that no-one should die or suffer serious injury in traffic, a goal that is driving change. It has also been constructively contagious: the goal has since been adopted by several countries and local governments.”
Another challenge that may limit government’s delivery capacity, Metzenbaum says, is the scarcity of outside drivers motivating government to improve. “In the private sector, investors and financial reporters care about growth and exciting new products as well as company problems. Who pays attention to what is working well in government? Reporters and legislators tend to seek out delivery problems to lambast, not progress to praise, because bad news sells far better than good news. This makes it riskier for folks in government who want to adopt inspiring, outcome-focused stretch targets that they cannot fully control. It also makes it hard to experiment to find better ways to do business, many of which may not work but all of which can provide valuable insights that inform future action.”
This reality makes it crucial that the systems of government embrace outcome-focused, data-informed reform. “Getting started can be hard but, once under way, it keeps people in government connected with their purpose and the people whom they serve,” she says. “This approach works well even when political leaders change. The goals and data help the next set of leaders – not just decide, but also quickly and concisely communicate, whether they want to stay the course or make changes.”
Fortunately, advances in computing and communication technology make this approach increasingly feasible and affordable, although it has always been theoretically possible. The marginal cost of broadcasting goals and strategies and getting public feedback is relatively low, and real-time data collection, analysis, and sharing is far more affordable than ever, all of which promises a hugely positive impact on both the policymaking and the policy execution process.
Metzenbaum is encouraged by progress in the US. “A lot more people across all levels of government now understand the value of an outcomes-focused, data-informed way of doing business,” she says. “Numerous cities, states and federal agencies are doing some very exciting things. At the same time, many places have not yet adopted this approach. Plus, some aspects of outcomes-focused management need attention, such as the need to measure and manage unwanted side effects along with key performance indicators, such as police abuse statistics along with the crime data, and the value of integrating measured trials seamlessly into operations – similar to what companies do when they test new products in different markets and test different ways to sell online.”
She believes that the next occupant of the Oval Office will inherit an infrastructure in transition to outcomes-focused management, but recognises there is still more to do. She identifies five steps she would like to see the next presidential administration follow.
“First, leaders need to adopt constructive accountability expectations. They should not hold organisational leaders accountable for meeting every goal they set, which will invite timid targets and measurement manipulation. Instead, they should hold them accountable for mastering data relevant to their organisational objectives, for using that data to find ways to improve along multiple dimensions, and for complementing performance information with measured trials and other studies as needed.
“Second, goals, strategies, data, and analyses need to be shared more thoughtfully and frequently with people across the delivery system, both in and out of government, not just with programme managers and budget office staff. Third, and closely related to the second, information needs to be shared in an understandable, useful manner such as maps, graphs, and data disaggregated to the local level and then made readily available to inform action across the delivery system in a timely manner.
“Fourth, more attention is needed to finding effective ways to accelerate adoption of effective practices. Fifth, presidential interest in management and implementation helps. It is not essential, but unquestionably helpful.”
Of course, the US government is far from the only one grappling with these types of challenges and issues. Asked to spotlight which countries have performed well on this agenda, Metzenbaum cites the UK, Australia and New Zealand. She believes they have done some impressive work in analysing data to identify the causes of performance problems and the opportunities for improvement, and then introducing measured trials to test the different treatments and see which should be made operational. The work of Sir Michael Barber’s delivery unit for Tony Blair’s government was particularly instructive on performance.
Lessons learned in one country often need to be adapted to fit the realities of another, however. “Significant differences in the roles of the UK and US national governments meant that an exact replication of the UK approach did not make sense for the US federal government.” The UK delivery unit got enormous traction reducing hospital waiting times and train delays, helped in part by the reality that not addressing those issues could create significant political problems for the prime minister. The US federal government does far less direct service delivery to the public of this sort, relying far more on state and local governments, who fiercely resist what they view as too much federal control.
Still, Metzenbaum believes that countries, as well as sub-national units of government, can learn a lot from each others’ experience. She would like to see progress in international and sub-national benchmarking, while cautioning that great care will be needed to compare fairly without inappropriate rankings across different situations. She suggests that starting with outcome trend comparisons of similar situations will motivate, rather than discourage, performance improvement. Changes in outcomes – some small, some big – add up to a pattern of reform geared towards helping government deliver truly world-class services. “An emphasis on managing the outcomes that matter to the people government serves will ultimately deliver more bang for the government’s buck,” concludes Metzenbaum. “Getting people to appreciate the value of this way of doing government’s business is exciting. It is where we need government to go.”
While only time will tell if this pattern of reform continues, if it does there is no doubt that citizens will benefit. Then watch their view of government tick upwards as a result.
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