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Dr Paul Duignan on Outcomes: 

Sitting on the edge of your seats for the next instalment?

I know that you're all sitting on the edge of your seats waiting for my next instalment in this series on the latest enhancements to the New Zealand public sector management system. As those who read my first piece know, Graham Vaughan-Jones (Executive Director NextEra)  and myself (from DoView Outcomes Systems) are going where few souls are brave enough to go - taking a deep dive into the arcana of NZ's public sector strategy, budgeting and reporting system.

We're looking at the latest enhancements (2013) to the New Zealand's ongoing reform of its public sector strategy, budgeting and reporting system. And why should anyone be interested in how the New Zealand reforms, commenced in the 1980's, are working out in the fullness of time? Well NZ's been something of a poster boy/girl for changing the way a public sector deals with public administration. So how it's all panning out is something that people who follow this sort of stuff should be interested in knowing.

Kicking the tires - what are the key issues?

So far we've been looking at what departments are producing and talking to people from various departments and central agencies. We've identified an initial set of topics which we'd like to get to the bottom of. I've outlined these below and will be commenting on some of them in more detail in later articles.

Statements of Strategic Intent (SoSIs) and 4-Year Plans (4YPs) - how do they relate?

A very important aspect of changes to any public sector strategy, budgeting and reporting system are changes to the form and content of the documents that departments are required to produce. Two of the important documents now being prepared by New Zealand government departments are the Statement of Strategic Intent (SoSI) and the 4-Year Plan (4YP). The first question we've surfaced is how these two are intended to relate to each other because they cover similar material and time periods. What's been suggested by the people we've talked to so far is that the SoSI 'front-ends' the 4YP. I'm hoping to talk more about this when we immerse ourselves deeper into how the distinction is playing out in practice. 

Should the 4-Year Plans be for public consumption or more for internal government purposes?

A second question is who the audience for the 4-Year Plan should be? Should it just be an internal document for communicating between the departmental level and the relevant Ministers? Or, on the other hand, should it be a public document? At the moment when 4-Year Plans are being released they have significant portions redacted which are relevant to them being used for communicating 'free and frank advice' between officials and Ministers. We're interested in perspectives on this issue.

Votes versus departments and the good old attribution problem

The third issue is one that particularly fascinates me. As I understand it, 2013 has brought about a change from trying to work out if departments are achieving what they say they are trying to do, to focusing on whether a Vote is achieving its 'intentions'. (A Vote is a lump of money allocated to achieving a particular purpose). Some see this new approach as having less of an 'attribution' problem. Attribution is about figuring out whether something caused something to happen. In modern public administration systems, the more parties are pushed to specify higher-level outcomes, the more the attribution problem rears its ugly head. Obviously lower level activities which are done and products that are produced which are controlled by a single department (often known as outputs) are trivial to attribute. You only need to measure that they have happened in order to knowwho made them happen - the party that controlled them happening. Anyway, I'm hoping to dive into this issue in a later article and will be looking at the application of two outcomes theory principles - Non-necessarily controllable indicator measurement not attributable and Impact evaluation and controllable indicators not reaching to the top of an outcomes model and their relevance to this issue.

Specifying higher-level sector strategy

The fourth issue which we've picked up on so far is the relationship between higher-level sector strategies and lower-levels of strategy. If you want joined-up government you need to have a way of specifying wider sector strategy. There are lots of fascinating issues in here. For instance how you should define a sector and how you can best coordinate strategy between the many different stakeholders involved. I hope to talk about these in a later piece.

Use of a list of results set as targets

The fifth issue is the role of targets within the current system. The current government has employed a system of setting ‘results’ for the public service called Better Public Services (BPS). These are in the form of ten results in five different areas. For example for long-term welfare dependence, reducing the number of people who have been on the benefit for more than 12 months. In education – increasing participation in early childhood education. The use of a fairly short list of overall targets for a whole country is an interesting mechanism and I’m planning to also look at this in more detail in a later article.

Upgrading the guidance

The 'guidance' is the documentation used by the central agencies to inform government departments about how they should be implementing the 2013 changes. It’s the main mechanism through which changes to public administration get translated into practice. We've been looking at the current guidance and examining how, now that it has been used for a while, it can be improved and we will be reporting back on that.

Ensuring necessary capability to implement the 2013 changes

We know from our experience with change management in government systems that the success of any changes such as those in 2013 relies on staff within government departments having the capability to effectively implement them. This includes skills, knowledge, tools and motivation. As I noted in my first article, one aspect of this might be the use of a Group Action Planning approach. In this approach, one person from each department comes together on a regular basis to: increase their own skills, knowledge and motivation; to then feed this information and their motivation to progress change back to their colleagues in their own departments; and lastly to give them the opportunity to provide feedback on system-level enhancements to which could improve implementation. We'll be looking at this and at other ways that capability could be built to optimize the bedding down of the 2013 changes.

Paul Duignan, PhD Outcomes Theorist - follow on Twitter and on my Blog.

Part 1 of this article.

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