Everyone loves New Zealand. Especially the business-minded. Last October, the World Bank named New Zealand the best country for business. According to one report, “World Bank chief economist Paul Romer said simple rules for doing business were a sign that a government treated its people with respect.” New Zealand didn’t achieve that kind of reputation without a lot of hard work. The just-released 2017 IBM Center for The Business of Government “Case Study of New Zealand’s Results Programme” explains how a commitment three decades ago ““to make individual single-purpose agencies more accountable and effective” culminated with 12 Practice Insights related to collaboration and interagency work valuable to every federal agency and private-sector business looking to be the best.
Here’s a glimpse of three of those lessons particularly relevant for today’s challenges.
Accountability is most routinely associated with some sort of punishment. Former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson described accountability a different way: “as a workplace culture where . . . leaders provide the guidance and resources employees need to successfully serve [customers], and employees are empowered and encouraged to inform . . . leaders when challenges hinder their ability to succeed.”
Over a course of several years, New Zealand’s government committed to designing a system of accountability that, like sustainable accountability, was productive rather destructive and produced positive results for interagency work. In the successful model the IBM report describes, “Chief executives were either rewarded or sanctioned based on the collective performance of the interagency group in addressing the nominated problem. Performance bonuses for chief executives were awarded on the basis of collective (group) achievement.”
That effective model, however, is more complex than it sounds. “Collective responsibility helped counteract some of the vertical ties that usually impede agencies working together,” the report reads, “but on their own they likely would not have been enough. At least as important in motivating public servants was that the results mattered to New Zealanders.” In short, this kind of collective accountability worked for employees “not because their bosses will be held collectively responsible by ministers and the State Services Commission, but because they feel a duty to the public.”
So productive, effective accountability depends on a lot more than censure: it depends on a collective interest in the welfare of those served. Without that sense of service, it would just be another detached and isolated exercise.
Government agencies and their communicators are very often reluctant, even opposed, to publicly announcing goals. That’s because the public, informed by the watchdog media, will track results. Every time there’s a slip in the numbers, the press starts . . . pressing, and everybody panics together. Hearings. Crisis management. Crisis communications. Alarms. It’s not pleasant. In New Zealand, that sort of transparency is good. According to the IBM report, candor about vision, objectives, and progress is a healthy and necessary tool of accountability that helps make the whole machine work. Again, however, it takes some discipline. “New Zealand was fortunate that media reporting of the programme generally focused on trends and not numbers. . . . progress can either be reported as a success [over time as the trend toward the goal is positive] . . . or a failure [if some incremental goals are missed]. Most media outlets have described it as the former.”
But how do you train the media to report what you want? Communicators have to present the information in a way that’s understandable to the audience—whether the audience is the media or the customer—and in a way that provides context to the information. “The reporting format may have played a role,” IBM explains, “with a focus on line graphs rather than raw numbers. Line graphs are important for contextualising change, as it is easy for the reader to determine whether overall performance has improved from the historical trend.”
So collaboration and hard work among number crunchers and communicators can better present the true story to the audience. Of course, if the trend is bad, well, it’s bad, and you have to own that. But you don’t have to be enslaved to daily reports and ups and downs. It’s the trend that matters.
This is a hard one, because we’re trained to believe that audiences only respond to bad news, not good news. True, the story of Wikileaks dumping CIA secrets will get more attention than great quarterly or semi-annual trend reports, but it’s the communicators who have to beat the drum so that, behind the chaos of day-to-day disasters on which media thrives, there’s a steady, incessant rhythm of success. Building the right relationships with customers and the media, there will be that opportunity for these kinds of headlines: “XX Agency Doubled Productivity While No One Was Watching.”
Public servants in New Zealand aren’t so different: “Public servants typically dislike public reporting against targets because of risks to reputation. Central agencies in New Zealand intentionally followed an approach of positive reinforcement by celebrating success. Consequently, reporting of the Results Programme was generally well received by agencies and proved to be a strong motivating factor. Celebrating successes provided a positive incentive for public servants to try new things.”
Those three wave-tops only touch on the success story IBM charted in New Zealand, and the report is definitely worth some study. But here’s the overarching lesson with which IBM concludes: “This success has not come easily. These leaders note that many of the obstacles they faced in working across boundaries remain.”
Remember, there is no end to performance improvement. You never “get there” and stop working, innovating, collaborating, and achieving. Embrace that.