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Senior public servants prioritize better service, but struggle with management issues and funding, says international survey


# Governments focus on service quality ahead of value for money and accountability
# Clear need for better management

Senior government officials in five major economies are agreed that their main priority is to improve the quality of the services they provide, taking precedence over giving better value for money or more engagement with citizens.

But all report significant problems with management of people, funds and technology, and are looking increasingly to the private sector for ideas on how performance can be improved.

These results come in a new survey of senior civil servants in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada and Germany, carried out for KPMG’s Global Government practice.

Researchers from the Economist Intelligence Unit interviewed a total of 254 public sector executives, representing every major government department. All had management roles, and 37 percent were heads of department, financial chiefs, directors, deputy directors or their equivalents.

Nearly 84 percent of respondents said that improved quality of service was important or very important, compared with two thirds who said the same of improved value for money, and only half who prioritized improved citizen engagement with their departments.

The most popular methods of improving service were improved management of people, competitive sourcing and more e-government – using technology to deliver government services. But each of these presented real management problems.

On management of people, 37 percent said that skills shortages were their biggest difficulty, mainly because they found themselves in direct competition with the private sector for well-qualified people, without being able to match private sector compensation packages.

This has a knock-on effect on sourcing and e-government. On procurement, 43 percent said that lack of skills and specialist knowledge were their biggest challenge. And on effective management of technology projects, poor project management was the most pressing problem for 37 percent.

“People issues are very important,” said one Canadian official. “You can change business processes, but won’t make progress if you haven’t got a very motivated and professional public service. We need to brand the public service and sell it better to graduates and experienced hires. We don’t pay as high as the private sector, but we can offer a varied and interesting career and the work is challenging.”

Officials also reported difficulties in calculating the real costs of public projects, and their benefits. Costs were a problem for 39 percent and raising the necessary funds was difficult for 31 percent.

“This could explain one of the more surprising findings of our survey,” said John Herhalt, chair of KPMG’s Global Government Sector practice. “We found that 54 percent of our respondents favored private finance initiatives or user fees over taxation as a method of funding public sector projects.

“At a country level, we found that the interest in non-tax funding was strongest in Canada, Germany and the U.S., perhaps because it is understood that the UK and Australia have already made significant advances in this area. We found it very interesting that administrations so keen on introducing private sector management methods should also want to adopt private sector funding mechanisms, where and when it is appropriate to do so.”

Mr. Herhalt pointed out that direct linkages between funding and service delivery performance can be a very strong mechanism for resource allocation. “With tax revenues under pressure all over the world, we think that these different methods of funding are going to become more and more popular.”

Despite the emphasis on service improvements, only 59 percent of respondents said that their departments had a formal system for gathering and analyzing feedback from citizens. A third said that they either did not have a feedback system, or didn’t know whether they had.

“This must be a priority for governments,” said Mr. Herhalt. “We found several departments which claimed that their efforts to improve engagement with citizens have helped them deliver better results in their drive to improve service quality. We see evidence of a strong focus on improving performance measures and changing incentives for performance, which is tied to the overall agenda for managerial reform. In making this all work, there is little substitute for actually asking constituents what they want.”

This was, he said, an example of where best practice in one part of the world can be introduced in another. “We see so much convergence in the aims and methods of these administrations,” he said, “that we think there must be strong arguments for a lively cross-border debate to share experience, in the interests of better government for all.”


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