4 ways to measure success in the public sector

Accenture publishes its business ideas on the value of public service

Measuring success in sports and business is easy. Statisticians keep track of numbers such as batting averages, games won and bottom-line profits. But government information technology officials and public service providers know that they don’t have an easy way to measure how well they satisfy the demand for better functioning agencies.

Martin Cole, group chief executive for government at Accenture, and Greg Parston, director of the Accenture Institute for Public Service Value, a research-oriented think tank, examine that problem in a new business book, “Unlocking Public Value: A New Model for Achieving High Performance in Public Service Organizations.” In it, they offer a framework and a process for assessing the value of public service. Cole and Parston also make the following important points.

1. The squeeze for services is fostering public-sector changes.

“If anything, the pressure on public service organizations to create more technology-driven service options, driven largely by citizens’ use of the Internet, is only likely to expand in coming years,” they wrote.

The book states that increased pressure worldwide on government organizations to open additional channels of communication is spawning “a new and growing form of competition in government” that will lead to more outsourcing of certain public services.

In an interview, Parston said he thinks the United States is doing well at improving public service compared with other countries’ efforts. “There has been a public service reform in the United States for the last 16, 17 years.” In the past several years, the government has tried to establish better accountability, he said.

2. There is a need for a practical definition of performance.

As governments try to do more with less, the authors see a growing need for “a practical approach to define, measure and drive high performance in the public sector.” They wrote that governments should consider the Public Service Value Model as a framework for setting priorities as they try to balance goals and objectives.

They describe the model as four contiguous rectangles, with outcomes on the vertical axis and cost-effectiveness on the horizontal axis. Plotting the direction of an organization reveals its performance trend. “If an organization moves to the upper right-hand quadrant, it is succeeding in increasing outcomes and cost-effectiveness at the same time,” Cole and Parston wrote.

But if a government organization moves into the lower left-hand quadrant, it is experiencing a reduction in both outcomes and cost-effectiveness. “It is eroding public value and most likely taxpayers’ confidence,” they wrote.

3. Measuring outcomes isn’t easy.

The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 required federal agencies to develop strategic plans with long-term, outcome-oriented goals and short-term objectives that they report annually.

Despite that mandate, however, the authors say “outcome measurement is still not a mature practice in U.S. government departments and agencies.”

Parston said measuring outcomes is difficult because they often compete with one another. He cited public health as an example. “What do you want to do, cure the disease or make sure the people who get the disease are treated effectively?” he asked. “You are trying to improve people’s recovery from disease, but at the same time, you are also trying to prevent the disease.”

4. Innovation is important to success.

Experimentation in the public sector is rare because government agencies have little incentive to spend time and money on experiments that may fail. Nevertheless, the authors cite examples of successful public-sector innovation.

One successful innovation was the decision of London’s newly elected mayor to assess a fee on drivers who enter the most congested traffic areas of the city. Cameras, the Internet and Short Message Service text on mobile phones help spot and report offending vehicles and allow drivers to pay a fee.

The innovation has been so successful that officials are looking to extend it to other congested areas of the country.

Cole and Parston: Not much performance progress in a decade

Ten years after the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 became law, a Government Accountability Office survey submitted to Congress in March 2004 found fewer than one-fourth of agency officials thought the law “had even a moderate impact on the ability to service the public,” according to the new book “Unlocking Public Value” by Martin Cole and Greg Parston.

They wrote that much work remains to make the federal government truly outcome-oriented. Feedback from agency officials suggested that measuring performance was too inwardly focused on the processes of government rather than outwardly focused on the people the government serves.

— David Hubler

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.


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