Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Public Sector Accountability and Performance Measurement

"I have been working now for about 20 years in the area of evaluation and performance measurement, and I am so discouraged about performance measurment and results reporting and its supposed impact on accountability that I am just about ready to throw in the towel. So I have had to go right back to the basics of reporting and democracy to try to trace a line from what was intended to what we have ended up with." (Karen Hicks on 28 July 06 on the AEA Evaltalk listserv).

This made me think - In our government, at least in the departments I work with, this is also quite a prominent issue. We do so much reporting and performance measurement, but does it help us to be more accountable? Why do we do all of this reporting, and who do we do the reporting to?

A national departments' strategic planning and performance reporting manual explains what the intention is with the government M&E:

"Every five years the citizens of South Africa vote in national and provincial elections in order to choose the political party they want to govern the country or the province for the next five years. In essence the voters give the winning political party a mandate to implement over the next five years the policies and plans it spelt out in its election manifesto.
Following such elections the majority party (or majority coalition) in the National Assembly elects a President, who then selects a new Cabinet. The President and the Cabinet have the responsibility (mandate) of implementing the majority party’s election manifesto nationally. While at the provincial sphere, the majority party (or majority coalition) in each provincial legislature elects a Premier, who selects a new Executive Committee. The Premier and the Executive Committee have the responsibility (mandate) of implementing the majority party’s election manifesto within the province".

The governing party's election manifesto gets translated into policy and plans, and particularly the strategic plans and annual performance plans are key in this regard. The strategic plans spell out, for a five year period, what the department's goals, objectives and priorities will be. Since there has been quite an infusion of the idea that "what gets measured, gets managed" in South African Government, Government Departments are also encouraged to set Mesurable Objectives and Performance Indicators relating to all of the goals and objectives in the strategic plan. These Measurable Objectives and Indicators are then used to reflect on an annual basis on the performance of a Department.

A common problem with this approach is that Departments want to set indicators that measure the outcome of all the Departments' activities at activity level, rather than at programme level. This leads to the unfortunate result of a million and ten indicators that are too unwieldy to communicate and analyse effectively. Other common problems also include misalignment between the indicators and the objective it is supposed to measure, and some objectives just do not have any measurable objectives because the data that is available does not allow for efective measurement.

Besides all of these difficulties, though, the biggest drawback of this type of reporting for accountability is that it comes down to government reflecting on its own performance against governments' plans. For the sake of democracy it is important that reporting should go beyond this and place information in the hands of the public that would allow them to not only critically reflect on government's success in implementing its plans, but also critically reflect on the appropriateness of the plans and the prioritisation of objectives in the first place.

South Africa has come up with some sort of solution to this challenge by instituting the Public Services Commission with the mandate to evaluate the public service on an annual basis against nine constitutionally enshrined principles. The result of this evaluation is the PSC report entitled: State of the Public Service Report which is published annually. The 2006 report is available at:

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