Government effectiveness. How much control should political leaders have?

Political leaders rarely campaign for office on a platform of government effectiveness. In many cases, tackling the bureaucracy is perceived as high risk and low reward compared with passing new laws in the legislature. Yet few succeed without achieving some reform. Many departing presidents, prime ministers, and cabinet secretaries reflect on how the engine of government itself was at the very heart of their successes or failures.

What it takes

Those that have achieved sustainable and significantly higher levels of government performance did so by explicitly designing and executing multiyear reforms that push beyond everyday initiatives designed to improve management capability.

McKinsey recently published a report – “Government designed for new times” in which they identify 40 such programs that have been enacted around the world in the past two decades. There were a number of objectives these programs were designed to achieve: significant fiscal consolidation, better outcomes across multiple public services, and economic growth. Here is a map of programs in a selected number of countries that McKinsey has put together:

How much control should political leaders have over government effectiveness?

The intense pressure for reform makes innovation a critical capability. In many areas, government agencies around the world are redesigning how services are delivered (for example, through one-stop shops and e-portals) by providing greater data availability and through mobile services that allow citizens to get instant help and support. McKinsey shows that Governments that are willing to reform and build such capabilities are better able to achieve major breakthroughs in the most fundamental policy areas, even in the absence of new policy or legislation.

I would raise a question mark whether such a discussion should take place from the very beginning. Should government agencies look at themselves for making their services more efficient or should this fall under political control? Let’s consider that, regardless of the fiscal policy, efficiency of the fiscal agencies should follow a consistent improvement track so the question is: should its efficiency be influenced by the policy itself?

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4 thoughts on “Government effectiveness. How much control should political leaders have?”

  1. This is an interesting concept and long overdue in terms of bringing significant public spending under the spotlight.The problems are however structural and deeply rooted. The question posed “Should government agencies look at themselves for making their services more efficient or should this fall under political control” is similar to asking if departmental managers should be able to reorganise their part of the business without board level approval, it just wouldn’t happen. In central Government in the UK there was (in theory still is but….) the principle of Ministerial accountability that in effect states the Minister is responsible for everything done in their Department, so if a wheel falls off, whether the most senior Minister was aware of the issue or not, they have to “consider their position”. This being the case, and with in my opinion, many of our the current Politicians (of all parties) focus on self interest for their Political careers, rather than the long term public good (as shown by recent expenses scandals), why am I not surprised that with a 5 year election cycle politicians rely on superficial activity that gives the public the impression that change is being made, rather than initiating a real multi year transformational change programme that will actually deliver significant improvements and huge fiscal benefits to the taxpayer. The issue is that benefits of a long term change programme would accrue to the next Government, or more likely several after that so, the question I ask is what would motivate today’s politicians to start a long, difficult and politically risky process that possibly wouldn’t win a single vote, (but could lose them many) at the next election? Until we address this fundamental problem the quote attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter somewhere around 67 AD will continue to describe the process successive UK Governments will, in my view, continue to apply “We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization”.

    1. Excellent comment, Brian. Thanks. I fully agree with one additional comment: departments CAN reorganise themselves if empowered to do so in order to achieve at least effectiveness if not better efficiency. You don’t need a board member to tell you where to put the printer in the office. On the other hand, this is exactly what catches the public eye so why not come there and get on the news by telling them how to put the printer in the middle of the room?

  2. Very helpful. I too am following McK, as they are onto fresh material. The comments on the need for longer-term sustained planning are particularly relevant, Our group, RtL Consultancy has suggested that constitutional changes should extend the possibilities of the US Presidency to 12 years (as under Roosevelt’s New Deal).

    But I want to note the particular –and workable relevance for Hungary –required now to produce a letter of intent to IMF in order to resume talks. If, as clear thinkers who are beyond economics as paper work, such as Jim Yong KIm, a medical specialist, value the longer picture –in this words, “We have to help give shape to the curve of history.” –then his organization can, and should, contract for the role of rudder across troubled waters irrespective of short-term changes in governments. This at once answers many of your concerns –such outside, and fairly independent agencies, can at once be a source of motivation in the direction of the efficiency you support, and also a source for stabile policy long-term.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Dr. Petrovics. Is US the only suggestion to extend presidential ruling? How about the kingdoms (e.g. UK) where we don’t have presidential campaigns? Should running for the “cabinet” fall into the same extension?

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