Strengthening the performance and accountability of government


Alex Gash

The capacity of public agencies to execute their responsibilities is inherently dependent on robust and agile performance and accountability arrangements.

However, the performance and accountability arrangements of many public agencies are a reflection of the era in which they were developed, often resulting in outdated practices and processes that are well beyond their use-by date. A culture and willingness to embrace the principles of good practice performance and accountability provide agencies with tools to maintain up-to-date systems that support the delivery of strong public policy outcomes.

What do accountability and performance really mean? 

Strictly speaking, accountability is when someone, let's say a public servant, has been put in a position of responsibility - for example, to deliver services - concerning the interests of someone else - say the community. Under this example, the public servant is required to give an account (to the community) of how the person has discharged their duties, and consequently, the community is in a position to reward or punish the public servant, in relation to the delivery of those services.

In practice, this definition has played out in several ways. In the fields of politics and public administration, the term 'responsibility' has been used to indicate the duty placed on public officials to justify their actions or use of public money. In law, 'liability' was (and still is) the preferred term to indicate how individuals or organisations are responsible for their actions under contracts. In broader public discourse, accountability has been used as a proxy for the level of transparency surrounding government decision making and actions.

For many centuries, accountability has been part of this group of interrelated words. These words refer to a series of issues important to political representation, executive and administrative responsibility, legal liability, as well as trust and integrity in government. From my experience, they all clearly speak to the complex array of obligations and expectations - moral, legal and political - placed on governments for their decisions and actions. The accountability challenge for government is that these obligations and expectations, while constantly changing, are usually contradictory.

 The concept of performance in government is, by contrast, quite recent. Performance emerged from the managerial writings on professional government administration in the early-1900s, where the focus was on the efficient and economical execution of standards set for impartial public administrators. Today, performance in government refers to the array of complex systems, processes, activities, and monitoring and evaluation techniques, used by public agencies to discharge their legislative or regulatory responsibilities. Performance is now much more than the efficient and economical discharge of a public servant's duties. It also involves innovation in the delivery of measurable outcomes that must improve over time and be in line with the political culture of the time they pertain to.

Why strong performance and accountability arrangements are important

Performance and accountability are integral to the work of government, and for improving the way government operates. There is much complexity in the economy and community, which government must respond to. History is littered with stories of sophisticated public sector reform initiatives that try to address this complexity. However many of these reforms have failed through neglect of the central role performance and accountability can play; it is an integral tool in achieving the stakeholder acceptance needed to ensure the reforms are successful and endure.

I would argue that failures in government performance and accountability have also contributed to the steady and well-documented decline in the level of trust in government institutions and politicians since the 1960s. That decline has been somewhat halted in recent times, in response to the government's role in protecting health and economic security as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stronger performance - when coupled with stronger accountability - can help to improve trust if meaningfully implemented by government. A good performance and accountability framework not only measures past performance but also encourages improvement in the future.

A failure to maintain an up-to-date, sustainable and robust performance and accountability system could pose significant risks to governments. 

These include:

The lessons from practice are varied. Some jurisdictions (such as New Zealand and the Australian Government) have relied on outcomes-based performance frameworks and individual agency/CEO accountability. For others (such as Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia) the development of different portfolio-based models that are focused on achieving ministerial objectives, have been the centrepiece of the approach at times over the past decades. For jurisdictions, like the Australian Capital Territory, the approach has been entirely different. In the 2010s, it moved to a one-directorate model of government in the hope of removing silos and creating a single performance and accountability framework for the public service.

Whatever route is chosen, experience elsewhere suggests that performance systems need renewal to maintain their effectiveness.

Where does it all go wrong?

Over the past fifteen years, I've revisited the concepts of performance and accountability many times. In the 2000s, I was engaged by a central agency to design a 'next gen', whole-of-government performance and accountability framework. While the framework held much promise at that time, there was considerable scepticism from several long-standing Treasury officials who wanted to understand what they were signing up to. The officials were well justified in their scepticism given the long history of failed reforms.

Moving forward a few years, I was engaged in reviews of the performance or accountability arrangements of public agencies, strategies and initiatives. These included reviewing performance and accountability indicators that didn't measure the right things, analysis of reporting systems that were unhelpful or cumbersome, and the review of programs, policies and projects that didn't have clear objectives.

More recently I designed a performance and accountability framework for a controversial policy which - to the credit of the policy owners - was adopted, published and promoted, but not implemented in any meaningful or consistent way. This was definitely an opportunity lost to improve the long-term outcomes of the policy in question.

Collectively, these experiences reinforced to me that performance and accountability not only matter, but should also be thought about in a holistic, integrated and future-focused way.

How performance and accountability can be strengthened

We have seen increasing pressure on governments to be more accountable for their decisions, actions and even outcomes over recent years. The work of auditors-general, independent commissioners, ombudspeople, international bodies, think tanks, non-profits, media outlets, parliaments, industry associations and employee groups collectively, all point to a desire for enhanced accountability and performance in government. The well documented digital and social media revolutions give constituents the platforms to consume this work in new ways, at unprecedented levels.

While these may be interesting (and even valid) observations, I'd like to consider what we glean from them - my response is a call to action. I argue that performance and accountability should be ingrained within the fabric of all government action and organisation; it's what constituents expect and will demand of government in the future.

Opportunities to do this will emerge if governments think about three important observations. Governments should have in-place performance and accountability arrangements which are: 

I predict that the appetite for improved performance and accountability will only continue to grow in the post-COVID-19 world as competition for resources intensifies, resource availability becomes more uncertain, and constituents demand more justification for the use of public monies and public office.