What's wrong with Western governments?

May 28 2012 by Andre de Waal Print This Article

Ever since I began my research into the characteristics of high performance, I have worked with hundreds of organisations across a range of sectors and industries both commercial and non-commercial - as well as those operating in healthcare and education.

What's missing from this list, however, are public sector and government agencies. It seems the message of "high performance," with its emphasis on continuous improvement and dedicated attention to clients and customers the tax-payer, in this case - fails to resonate here. In fact last year, we carried out over 100 High Performance Organisations (HPO) Diagnosis for commercial organisations but just five in the public sector.

Why is this? Why would any public body not want to study and apply the characteristics of high performance? Why don't public officials see the HPO Framework as the natural successor to New Public Management? After all, in this movement which had its heyday in the 1990s much emphasis was placed on increasing the quality of governmental processes and services, making these both better measurable and manageable, and delivering added value to citizens.

Is this lack of interest due to the long-term orientation of HPO, perhaps out of an inherent tension with the short-term nature of politicians, the 'masters' of governmental agencies? Or is it because public institutions basically monopolies that never feel the threat of extinction and therefore have little impetus for improvement?

But contrast the attitude of the public sector Western countries with that of the developing world. Here, government often is the main driver of the economy as well as being its biggest employer and interest in the characteristics of HPO is real and increasing.

Last year I was invited to speak to an audience of government officials at an HPO Summit in Windhoek, Namibia. I also conducted an HPO Diagnosis of Rwanda's Ministry of Local Governance and Social Affairs. This year I am conducting HPO Diagnoses of Rwanda's International Criminal Tribunal and Zambia's Ministry of Commerce Trade and Industry.

In the meantime, the heads of state of several African countries have stated publically that their governmental institutions must improve considerably (and thus become HPOs) in order to ensure that their countries will develop economically. These presidents realize that an efficient and effective public sector is crucial for the well-being of their countries and inhabitants.

Perhaps Western governments have grown complacent after decades of progress. After all, most have been doing relatively well since World War II and their public institutions have performed adequately. But now they face a double challenge of economic decline and an increasingly demanding electorate. Thus, adequate is no longer good enough! Western governments need to break out of their comfort zones and begin focusing on new and better ways of operating if they hope to deal with these increasingly difficult circumstances, not to mention stay responsive and relevant.

If public sector institutions want to become HPOs, they need to focus on the six themes:

1. Improve the "aura" of public sector managers. Since the HPO factor "management quality" represents the most important factor, it is of paramount importance that management of public sector organisations focus on creating inspirational leadership in the sector. Public sector managers have to transform themselves into high performance managers - managers guided by principles of client focus, continuous improvement and quality.

2. Strengthen the resoluteness of management. Part of the aura of management is being resolute so that confidence can be instilled into employees. For this to happen, management must become more decisive and action-oriented. In addition, management must become more decisive when it comes to non-performers by dealing with them - within legal boundaries - as quickly and effectively as possible.

3. Become more innovative. The governmental organisation has to develop a "manifesto" that explains how it will add more and more value to society. This can be accomplished by developing a strategy that explains what makes the organisation unique in its services to society, and then continuously improve and renew its core competencies and services so that civilians and companies are serviced optimally.

4. Improve the performance management process. Performance management reports need to incorporate specific critical success factors and key performance indicators that will measure client dedication as well as important processes in the organisation that increase everyone's performance in terms of client dedication. These reports then must be distributed to everybody in the organisation so that all employees become aware of what is required in order for the public sector organisation to excel in specified areas.

5. Improve process management. Public institutions have to make sure that their processes are genuinely improved, simplified and aligned. This is needed in order to truly strengthen the institution's overall client dedication.

6. Increase the quality of the workforce. Public sector organisations have to concentrate on increasing the quality of employees by training them to become more flexible and resilient, and by urging employees to spend more time on communicating and on exchanging knowledge and best practices, both inside and outside the organisation.

Governments in several developing countries are leading the way to a better, HPO-level public sector. I call upon the "developed" governments in the Western world to follow their shining example. Only in this way will they help us all through the difficult economic times still ahead.


About The Author

Andre de Waal
Andre de Waal

Dr Andre A. de Waal MBA is Associate Professor of Strategic Management at the Maastricht School of Management and Academic Director of the HPO Center (Center for Organizational Performance), an organization that researches and gives advice about high performance organizations.