Measures of reform

OECD Observer

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OECD countries have carried out many public management reforms over the last 20 years or so. Yet there is still little comparative data to help governments plan such moves and gauge their progress. To be sure, statistical and budgetary agencies in many OECD countries have made attempts at measuring general government productivity, for instance, but these efforts have tended to be made in isolation, and often employing different methods.

Also, reforms are characteristically inspired by assumptions about “best practices” that are rarely spelled out clearly, making it very difficult for officials in any given country to evaluate changes introduced either by their predecessors or governments elsewhere.

OECD countries have their own individual tastes and needs when it comes to reform, but all face common challenges, such as how to introduce accountability, retain senior staff, improve efficiency and sharpen their bookkeeping. But while decision-makers may have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, the difficulty is knowing where to start, and then how to monitor and influence performance effectively.

A new project by the OECD’s Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate may help to respond to this need. Provisionally dubbed “Management in Government: Comparative Country Data”, it aims to bring together information and experience from across the OECD on good government and efficient public services.

The project is still at proposal stage but, if adopted, it would help governments to bring a sharper focus to public management discussions and reform. All levels of government–central/federal, state and local–could be covered by the project, which would lead to an annual report entitled Government at a Glance, starting in 2009. The study could also examine key sectors such as education, health care, law and order, and public administration.

Assembling the data is the tricky part. An initial working paper in 2006 would relate mainly to inputs, using data which are readily available on areas such as operating costs, human resources and institutions, budget processes, nature of the civil service, structure of government, intergovernmental relations and transparency.

Another part of the work would concern so-called outputs and results, including measurements of volume–nature, number and scope of public services–and quality, for example, processing time, customer/citizen relations and accessibility. Though this is a vital aspect of the study, experts working on the project concede that information of this sort will be more difficult to obtain.

The new project will depend on collaboration with outside agencies and experts, such as national statistical offices, analysts and statistical practitioners. This will enhance its appeal to a range of audiences, from public managers and policymakers to national accountants. All of those envisaging reform or wishing to assess performance, whether in outsourcing auditing or training schemes for senior managers, will be able to see in a glance how other governments have done.

The project cannot, of course, provide simple catch-all solutions for governments considering public management reforms. After all, the dividing lines between public and private sector differ from one country to another, and the relationships are complex in nature. Health services may be publicly funded but provided by private agencies, for instance. What the study can do, however, is provide a solid fact-based starting point for action. And if the project can help governments learn from the by now rich and rapidly accumulating experience of others, then it too will be a success.

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©OECD Observer No 252/253, November 2005

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