Constant dollars

Create and maintain high performance in the public sector

The public service is made up of people who are passionate about serving their nation and their community. Yet constantly transforming passion into high performance for a collective purpose is a unique organizational challenge, which requires disciplined management techniques.

COVID-19 and other recent emergencies represent a powerfully instructive example of how to meet this challenge. The Australian Public Service (APS) quickly organized and aligned in response to a clear call to arms, producing extraordinary results such as the onboarding of thousands of employees into Services Australia and the elimination of a million new job applications in six weeks, and the NSW government launching its border control applications in days.

With clear purpose and direction, combined with the passionate commitment of so many staff, APS has shown herself and Australia what high performance looks like. The challenge now is to capture and replicate this learning in a coherent way – to mobilize that passion in the same direction in a sustainable way – and not just in times of crisis.

Defining and recognizing high performance in the public service is structurally difficult

Many public sector goals are qualitative – some of which can be converted into quantitative goals quite easily; for example, customer satisfaction is qualitative but measurable by surveys, and the improvement is clear. Other goals such as “vibrant communities” or “reduced risk of terrorist attacks” are inherently difficult to measure, particularly in relation to “providing all Australians unemployed due to COVID-19 with rapid access to social assistance “.

Now, overlay these goals with ever-changing policies and priorities: Changes in elected leadership, government machinery, and budgets all have an impact on priorities. Based on our continued work to help public sector leaders create high performing agencies, however, we consider high performance to be fully and sustainably achievable in the public sector, based on the following framework:

1. Create a shared vision of the noble goal: a vision of community results that unleashes high performance

To strengthen the agency’s ability to remain focused on community value in the face of constant change and to harness the altruistic power of the organization, its noble purpose must be based on clear and tangible results that persist beyond changes in business. direction.

The co-creation and communication of a common and noble goal cannot be underestimated; it requires careful development and constant reinforcement to ensure that everyone is working towards the same result.

Customer example

A state police had not updated its organizational goals for over a decade. As a result, important goals were pursued by osmosis: goals were inconsistent and left to local interpretation.
By redefining clear goals for the police and aligning frontline KPIs, we were able to change behaviors and achieve desired results.

2. Identify SMART targets

In our experience, targets are rare in the Australian government – the inclusion of quantified targets and timeframes to achieve those targets is even rarer. It is assumed that APS staff generally react negatively to objectives; however, this is not our experience. We found that adopting specific goals was highly valued by staff and very successful.

To exceed a conceptual goal and achieve high performance, the goal must be operationalized as a priority set of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals. In other words, goals must be unambiguous, quantifiable, under the control of agency staff, aligned with the goal, and held within a specific time frame.

CLEVER goals give public sector leaders the clarity they need to succeed

Sspecific Mmeasurable Afeasible Rrelevant Tnested
Clearly defined and unambiguously Easily quantifiable and traceable. Under the control of management. Aligned with the master plan. Specified deadline.

SMART Targets Pyramid Infographic

It is important to note that the time dimension must include results achievable in two years or less. Distant time horizons are not effective in creating a sense of urgency. For example, many staff will be moved to a new role by the time these goals are expected.

3. Prioritize resources over good projects and usual activities to achieve objectives

Organizations should prioritize business as usual (BAU) projects and activities objectively in terms of costs (and other consumptions of scarce resources), risks, and benefits. All three factors should be directly related to the achievement of SMART goals.

The combined benefits of the delivery of the project portfolio and the successful execution of the priority activities of the BAU must correspond to the achievement of the set objectives. If a target is not sufficiently taken into account by BAU activities and the existing project portfolio, a new project is needed, or existing projects or activities need to be improved.

Conversely, if a project or activity does not contribute significantly to the achievement of an objective, it must be strengthened or stopped, with resources reallocated to an activity with a greater impact. Likewise, if there are activities that create benefits that are not included in the targets, then the targets must be adjusted or the activities must be de-prioritized (they no longer achieve a priority outcome).

Pro tip:

Focus on fewer projects at a time with higher speed. We often see agencies with 500 or more concurrent projects and typical 30-100% time and cost overruns. Squeezing too many projects into a crowded project pipeline creates complexity, exhaustion and confusion, and wastes taxpayer dollars.

Ensure that all projects contribute to the common goal and agreed objectives. Orphan, stand-alone or disconnected project portfolios reduce the scarce resources needed for priority projects. Have the courage to merge, rotate, suspend, or cancel projects that are not mission critical, no matter how much time staff spend on them.

4. Assign clear responsibilities for milestones and individual goals.

Every step of the project portfolio needs an owner. Likewise, every individual – right down to the front line – should have at least one KPI that they can clearly relate to the purpose and objectives of the organization.

This means that community outcomes must translate into role-level impact so that every staff member can answer the question: “What is the impact of my role and how does that translate into an impact on the community outcome we are trying to achieve?

John F Kennedy interrupted a NASA tour to ask a janitor with a broom what he was doing. The janitor replied that “he was helping put a man on the moon”.

While KPIs can have multiple owners, deliverables and actions should have a single responsibility.

workflow of deliverables and actions for single point accountability

5. Implement an effective management operating system: short interval monitoring to help individuals achieve milestones and manage progress towards goals

A management operating system (MOS) includes the reports, meetings, processes, and disciplines that help leaders manage progress toward a business outcome. Executives often under-invest in the design of the MOS, given its profound effect on performance.

Elements of an effective management operating system

In an effective MOS, leaders review operational performance against goals at least once a week with their teams. The importance of this discipline cannot be overstated: not only does it systematically reinforce priorities and expectations, allowing the team to focus on what really matters, but it also offers concrete opportunities for joint problem solving for solve problems and accelerate progress.

6. Recognize those who achieve high performance

Recognizing strong individual performance in the public sector is difficult at best, and counterproductive if done poorly.

It is now well understood that indirect rewards such as the altruistic nature of work or recognition from stakeholders, leaders and peers, are often more powerful motivators for public servants than direct rewards like bonuses.. Perhaps as a result, performance pay in APS is down sharply, with less than 5% of SES receiving a bonus in 2019 compared to over 30% in 2011².

This means that recognizing the top performers is imperative, helping to maintain high performance in the face of endless workloads. The options are many, ranging from simple calls in large group calls to a personal thank you call from the secretary or minister. Recognition can also extend to more tangible rewards such as access to professional development or other opportunities.

Set up a continuous improvement cycle

This is not a one-off exercise: sustainably high performance requires continuous improvement. Continuous improvement disciplines create a virtuous circle that regularly questions and refines the organization’s noble objective, the level of ambition reflected in its objectives, the alignment of resources with respect to the achievement of these objectives, the clarity of individual responsibilities, the effectiveness of MOS in driving progress and the impact of recognition and rewards on individual performance.


The public service is a unique workforce with an enormous capacity for high performance, as it has demonstrated time and time again in response to a crisis. Effectively leading this capability without the lightning rod of external events requires strong business mechanisms that define, measure, reward, and maintain high performance.

Without these mechanisms in place, the exceptional goodwill of officials is not enough. Goodwill alone cannot create the results the community needs most; well-run and successful public sector agencies can.

¹ For example, “Managing organizations to maintain a passion for public service” JL Perry 2020

² In 2019, 9.9% of all APS staff received performance pay, compared to 13.7% in 2012 (APS commission compensation reports)

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