New Zealand’s collective accountability experiment improves results, report finds
Holding public sector leaders collectively responsible for performance targets on persistent social problems yields better results than putting an individual in charge, according to a new report.
The paper, commissioned by the IBM Centre for the Business of Government, analyses New Zealand’s five-year experiment in collective responsibility, and advises public managers around the world to adopt this way of working.
Most governments struggle to get departments collaborating effectively on cross-cutting policy challenges. And the report says that New Zealand has had particular problems here due to its large number of single-purpose agencies, “which have historically found it difficult to work effectively together”.
In 2012, the government created a system of inter-agency performance targets. It identified 10 cross-sector challenges – such as reducing the criminal reoffending rate, and improving participation in early childhood education – and gave them all five-year targets, making the chief executives of relevant agencies jointly and equally responsible for achieving them.
The experiment, which became known in New Zealand as the “Results Programme”, saw dramatic improvements against all 10 targets – though not all the goals were met. Successes listed in the final status report, published this month, include reducing the number of infants not receiving vaccinations by two-thirds, and halving the number of children not enrolled in early childhood education. The government has committed to launching a new set of 10 targets in 2017.
The report authors, Rodney Scott of the University of New South Wales and Ross Boyd of the State Services Commission of New Zealand, explain that the system of “blind” collective responsibility works better than previous experiments in accountability, such as appointing a group leader, or trying to assess the contribution of each person.
“This system is undoubtedly unfair – freeloaders may be rewarded for the efforts of others, and overachievers punished because of their peers’ failures,” they say in the report. “Yet it seems to produce the best outcomes.”
Assigning a leader can place too much emphasis on their contribution, lessening the commitment of other members of the team, while in a group scenario committed individuals do whatever it takes to ensure the success of the team, says the report.
Scott and Boyd also identify other factors that made the experiment a success, including its focus on “a small number of priorities that the public and public servants alike see as important”, and its commitment to report publicly on progress, but using trend data, rather than a pass or fail relative to the target, which can be demoralising.
Scott told Global Government Forum that most new approaches to reform government fade within a couple of years, so it is significant that the Results Programme has lasted so long.
“Most target programmes are effectively report cards – they measure whether government reaches a specified acceptable level. Failure to meet that level represents a failure to perform,” he said.
“The New Zealand Results Programme is different; rather than maintaining an acceptable level, it represents an aspiration to do better over time.”
Also speaking to Global Government Forum, Boyd added: “One of the reasons for success is that the targets were public-facing. Important problems were targeted, using targets that were readily understood.
“A key motivation for public servants to achieve the targets is that they were important to them personally, and resonated with their spirit of service to the public of New Zealand.”
For more on New Zealand’s cross-cutting reforms see this dispatch from the frontline:
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