Focusing on public sector performance

2008-08-20 00:00

With the wide array of societal and technological changes, ranging from globalisation and the information technology (IT) revolution to demographic change and rising public expectations, governments are under pressure to operate better. As citizens the world over become more demanding, public sector organisations are being forced to focus on performance — knowing what their priorities are, where the main obstacles lie and what strategies work best to overcome them.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently conducted an international survey of governments in Australia, Canada, Germany, the U.S. and the UK. The survey revealed that:

1. Governments focus on quality of services, ahead of value for money.

Across much of the public sector, service quality and improved productivity are key imperatives.

These priorities come in ahead of greater transparency and accountability and better value for money — although all of these remain important.

2. Current efficiency projects may not be the ones that deliver the most benefits.

The survey highlights a possible mismatch between the initiatives currently under way in the public sector, and those that executives believe provide the biggest benefit. Human capital management and process re-engineering are widely acknowledged to provide clear benefits.

3. IT can do much to boost productivity, but is held back by poor management and a lack of skills.

Technology can enhance productivity, but the public sector suffers too many problematic IT projects. Poor management of IT initiatives, along with little or no choice of available technologies, is part of the problem.

4. Forecasting the costs and benefits of new projects is a challenge.

Even though governments are keen to do more, they struggle to determine the true benefits and costs of potential projects. Forecasting costs and predicting benefits emerged as two of the top three challenges associated with the funding of projects.

5. The global skills shortage is hitting the public sector.

The battle for skills is fast becoming a major problem for many public sector organisations, especially within specialist functions such as IT and procurement. This is particularly vital given that the strategic management of human capital is regarded as the top measure for delivering efficiency and performance gains.

Overall, it is abundantly clear that the countries surveyed face the same challenges that we face in South Africa. Fortunately, government officials have indicated their strong commitment to performance, efficiency and innovation. Most governments are increasingly intent on operating more like the private sector, but in a way that embraces and respects the unique responsibilities and constraints of the public sector.

And much like their private-sector colleagues, the government performance agenda is characterised by a tough competition for skills, improvements in project management, and a strong focus on enhancing service delivery.

Ugen Moodley

Director

Internal audit services.

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