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Dr Paul Duignan on Outcomes: 

New Zealand - the Rock Star of public sector management innovation

For anyone who's obsessed with public sector management issues, New Zealand has been something of a rock star in the area of public sector reform. It’s the domain of the select group of people who identify themselves as public sector management wonks. (A side note: public sector management wonks are admittedly just a small portion of humanity, but they're a group we certainly need. If governments get their public sector management arrangements wrong they're likely to waste significant amounts of money and end up failing to achieve the outcomes we're all seeking from them).

Changes: 1987 - outputs focus for departments; 2000 - outcomes focus at departmental level; 2013 - list of targets and reduced reporting requirements

In the 1980's New Zealand moved from focusing on inputs to using a tightly specified set of outputs to achieve accountability for individual government departments. The idea was that these sets of outputs would be selected on the basis of the outcomes being sought by the government. However this selection of outputs would not happen within government departments themselves but further up within the political decision-making hierarchy (Ministers and their advisors). Then around the year 2000 the next move was made. This put a greater emphasis on outcomes and measuring impacts, getting government departments involved in this rather than just Ministers and their advisors. 

Since 2013 NZ's been working on bedding down a third round of enhancements to its public sector strategy, management, planning, budgeting and reporting system. This new set of enhancements have included driving and focusing the public sector with a set of public sector targets. In addition there have been legislative amendments to reduce the requirements for the way strategy and planning and associated documentation is set out. If you want a detailed snapshot of the first two waves of change within the reform process, check out Derek Gill's book The Iron Cage Revisited: The Management of State Organisations in New Zealand.  

My colleagues and I are pretty obsessed with this stuff - someone has to be!

As part of my work on strategy and outcomes with governments and other organizations, I've been consulting on these issues to the NZ government central agencies (the bodies that provide control and guidance to the public service) and individual departments since just before the 2000 enhancements. It may be only a minority interest but I find it fun watching how a whole public service negotiates and deals with various the waves of change that have been taking place.

Recently I've been working with colleague Graham Vaughan-Jones Executive Director at NextEra, another public sector management and strategy specialist, looking at how the 2013 set of enhancements is bedding-in. The NZ public services has been implementing the 2013 enhancements for several years now and it's a great time to take stock. It provides the opportunity to work out how we can further optimize the most recent round of changes.


How to best implement reform in complex distributed systems

As I've learnt in my work with the NZ government and elsewhere, making changes across a whole public sector, particularly when it comes to such arcane matters as public sector strategy, planning, management and reporting is a fascinatingly complex thing. It starts with an intention in the mind of the government ministers who introduce proposed changes. This intention is then translated into legislation. The legislative requirements are then translated into technical guidance. The guidance then fans out and is implemented in various ways in all of the different agencies and departments within a public service. Of course, there's plenty of room for different interpretations to emerge and for personalities and interdepartmental politics to play their part in the way it all ends up being applied.

I've always thought that implementing such reforms in distributed systems can be helped by a process that I developed called DoView Group Action Planning. You use it when you're implementing reform within a complex system where there are multiple, somewhat independent, parties working on implementing similar changes. When I was asked to write a report for the NZ central agencies prior to the 2000 reforms I suggested that effectively implementing those reforms could be assisted by using such a process. There might be value in considering if this approach could be used with the 2013 set of changes.

In summary, the process is designed to avoid a situation where a central body wanting a number of different agencies to implement change has to work with each individual agency one-by-one to introduce such reforms. That is often the way people attempt to do it and it involves many bilateral discussions between the central agencies and individual departments. DoView Group Action Planning works in a much more multilateral way. It brings together a group of people (one coming from each department in which the changes are being implemented) and gets them to work collaboratively on assisting the introduction of the reforms over a number of years.

In my experience this completely changes the dynamic of the reform process. There is always more buy-in and you get all sorts of peer-to-peer learning, pressure and peer-to-peer support emerging. Equality importantly, it gives the agencies where the reforms are being implemented a vehicle to provide collective feedback which they can send back up the chain to the central agencies about common issues that they're all facing.


The Devil is in the detail

As with all the various waves of changes, the 2013 enhancements have seen changes in the format of the various statements, information and pieces of reporting documentation that are now required. I'll not go into them in detail here, but it's always fascinating to see how such documentation ends up being structured. There's always room for different variants and at this stage in the reform process - a couple of years out, it's a great time to see how the different departments are preparing their documentation.

At the moment Graham has been doing a lot of the leg work looking at what's happening in departments as they respond to the new 2013 requirements and its associated documentation. While that sounds easy, it's actually complicated getting your head around different sets of technical documentation from different departments. The Devil is in the detail. I know this as I was involved in such an exercise when the 2000 enhancements were bedding-in. I reviewed all of the outcomes documentation from each of the NZ government departments for the NZ Treasury and rated it for its thoroughness and consistency with the legislative requirements.


How far will they be taking the use of visual models?

From my theoretical perspective - outcomes theory – at the heart of all of this documentation in the 2013 round, as with the earlier rounds of the reforms, basically consists of statements about outcomes and about the steps that it is thought are the best way of getting to them. As usual, departments are articulating this in text, tables and in some cases visual models of what they are attempting to achieve. With Graham, I've been looking at, and comparing some of the visual representations of what departments are trying to do when describing their strategies and outcomes. I'll be writing later articles about what we're finding.

From my point of view, it's exciting that the reforms allow for more discretion in the way in which departments identify and report their strategy. Obviously being a psychologist and strategist interested in the benefits to strategy and outcomes from visualization, I'm keen to see how far they will push the visualization paradigm in the 2013 set of changes. 

Almost all of the documentation I assessed from the 2000 changes included at least some visual representation of outcomes (the documents I reviewed were called Statements of Intent SOIs). I'm interested in the extent to which departments will be able to advance their use of visual outcomes modelling to make it easier to formulate, capture and to communicate their strategy, outcomes and priorities. Some examples of how you can use outcomes model visualisation in this way for public sector strategy, management, planning, budgeting and reporting are here

In future articles I'll report on these issues and on all of the other intricacies of how this round of the reform process is going.

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Paul Duignan, PhD, follow on; contact me here. Checkout our Linkedin DoView Community of Practice.

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