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By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: A focus on results in government -- even in Saudi Arabia

As I noted in my previous blog post, I am attending a conference in in Saudi Arabia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Public Administration. The conference has featured more than 100 papers and presentations by experts, most of them academics, from 35 countries.

What made the biggest impression on me was the conference title --"Towards Excellence in Public-Sector Performance" -- and the two conference keynote speakers, Tom Peters (co-author of “In Search of Excellence”) and David Osborne, inventor of the concept of "reinventing government."

One might think that the focus on excellence and results -- it seems as if half the conference panels had the word "results" in their titles -- would be found mostly in developed countries that had already tackled basic governance issues such as the rule of law or establishment of a merit-based civil service. In this view, talk of "excellence" and "results," and support for such techniques as performance measurement in government, is a rich-country luxury, not something for countries where you need to worry about civil servants coming to work every day and not constantly looking for bribes.

That didn't seem to be the view of conference organizers or of participants from Saudi Arabia and other countries (mostly Arab and Asian) at the conference. The language of the conference -- performance measurement, quality, customer service, empowering employees -- could have been taken from the Clinton-era reinventing government movement, or from academic writing on the "new public management." Somehow, something in this message seems to have hit a chord even in a very different culture.

The message that Tom Peters gave in his first-day keynote should be heard by public managers and leaders in the United States as well: "The first 99 percent of excellence is passion. I do not comprehend the person who would get out of bed in the morning and not aspire to excellence." As I have often written and said, public managers have one great advantage over many of their private-sector counterparts: a mission that easily can inspire passion. This remains our greatest underutilized resource in government management.

P.S. It turns out that allowing women in a separate section of the conference occurred only in the large conference auditorium hall, where it was felt that (because of larger space) women would not be close to men. However, in the two smaller breakout rooms where people were closer together, women were not allowed, and needed to sit in separate rooms into which the proceedings were broadcast. I was told, however, that this conference was actually the first ever held in Saudi Arabia at which, at least partly, women were allowed to be in the same hall as men. Additionally, women presented a number of papers at the conference -- even if in the breakouts, their voices were somewhat eerily broadcast from the "ladies' room" into the breakout room -- which I was told was again a first for Saudi Arabia. I should add that women were encouraged to ask questions during the question periods, and on average the quality of their questions was better than the quality of the men's questions. If you are in a society which raises great barriers to achievement, those who do achieve are likely to be really outstanding.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 05, 2009 at 12:08 PM

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Reader comments

Sun, Nov 8, 2009 Chun Li Beijing

I guess government performance is generally a common top issue around the world now, including middle-east and China. Since the very beginning of 21st century, China’s central government also put the issue on top agenda. A few days ago, China’s central government released three more official papers which are aimed to reform the performance measurement of middle and top level cadres. Government performance is also a hot issue in Chinese academic research. Of course, to some extent, we justifiably argue about the effectiveness of performance evaluation in China due to its centralized system. Ps, I’d like to speak highly of female participants in the conference because of their quality, even better than some ordinary men.

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