Sixteen Habits of Highly Effective Governments (Part One)

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Today, government performance is critical to public service delivery and achievement of national development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

All experts agree that the competitive and comparative advantage of a nation is directly proportional to the effectiveness of its government. An effective government is understood as a government that “delivers” what it “promises” in foundational documents, legislation, regulations and political forums.  Gone are the days when the competitive and comparative advantage of nations was primarily determined by resource endowments of nation states. Today, resource-scarce nations like Singapore, New Zealand, Ireland, and Switzerland, to name a few, are considered prosperous simply because they have effective governments.

Unfortunately, the consensus seems to end here; alas, three people looking at the performance of the same government organization can, and often do, come to three different conclusions – good, bad, or ugly. That is, the performance of a government organization seems too often to lie in the eyes of the beholder.

Contrast this with the situation in the private sector. When a private enterprise makes an announcement that it has made a 300-million-dollar profit, everyone takes this announcement at its face value. Not because the markets, investors, and analysts trust the private sector more, rather because this number is based on accounts that are consistent with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The private entity prepares its accounts using a standard definition of working capital, fixed assets, and depreciation. Furthermore, before the financial statements are approved by the board of the company, these accounts are audited by an external auditor, using the GAAP principles.

The Commonwealth Secretary General posited a grand challenge to the Governance Directorate of the Commonwealth Secretariat: findthe counterpart of GAAP principles for the public sector. After 15 training programmes for some 2000 of the senior-most civil servants in 56 countries of the Commonwealth, the Heads of Public Service of these countries approved a set of Generally Accepted Performance Principles (GAPP) in June 2022. We call them the Sixteen Habits of Highly Effective Governments.

The diversity that exists among nations and their governments makes us often overlook a trio of key facts:

  1. First, many of the problems involved in managing government are a result of a few underlying causes.
  2. Second, the underlying causes of poor government performance are similar in nature across a diverse set of countries.
  3. Third, countries have successfully dealt with these (few) underlying causes using remarkably similar approaches.

The 2000+ participants of the Commonwealth’s performance training programmes looked for what works and what doesn’t work, and distilled the key aspects of the methodology for improving government performance, culling out the generally applicable (and acceptable) principles. The institutional context of each country may differ a little, but participants were struck by the similarities and relevance of their experience.

A broad consensus emerged on the relevance of the following sixteen principles for designing government performance management systems in individual member countries. These principles then constitute the Generally Accepted Performance Principles (GAPP). They also represent a set of sixteen habits that are found in governments that seem to work faster, better and cost less. Included below are the first four habits while later this week the balance will be described.

Habit #1

Ensure an Appropriate Performance Measurement System: There is no doubt that what gets measured gets done. However, it is as important to measure the “right things.” Effective governments agree on the jobs to be done and their targets at the beginning of the year using instruments like performance agreements, performance contracts, etc.    A Government Performance Management System (GPMS) should have the following attributes:

  1. Be based on a preceding agreement on the meaning of performance and the intent of a performance programme to produce tangible, salient efficiency and service improvements.
  2. Employ instruments such as a Performance Agreement (PA), Performance Contract (PC), Commitment for Results (CFR), and Results-Framework Document, (RFD), etc.
  3. Cover all aspects of organizational performance — Financial, physical, quantitative, qualitative, static and dynamic.
  4. Focus on front line ‘managerial’ performance as well as overall ‘agency’ performance.


Habit # 2

Adopt an appropriate Performance Measurement Methodology: A GPMS should use a performance measurement methodology that has the following objectives and scientific attributes:

  1. There should be a connection (line of sight) between vision, mission, objectives, actions and success indicators (i.e. Key Performance Indicators–KPIs)
  2. Menus of KPIs should be drawn from consultative approaches, web-based resources, best practices as well as  published websites and internal manuals. KPIs should include measures of capacity, services, efficiency, efficacy, and outcomes (or impacts).
  3. The objectives, actions and KPIs in the GPMS should be prioritised (i.e. weighted).
  4. There should be an explicit, prior agreement as to what constitutes various levels of performance – such as excellent, good, average and poor levels.
  5. A GPMS should be able to calculate a composite score (a weighted index) for managerial performance.


Habit # 3

The GPMS Should Cover the Whole-of-Government: . Pilot programs may place too much pressure on early innovators, denying them the time they need to demonstrate the worth of their interventions. A performance improvement initiative that focuses on only one adopter misses opportunities for all parts of a government to apply effective habits, learn from the experiences of other units, and adapt innovations to their own contexts.

Habit # 4

Accountability for Results and Delivery Should Trickle Down from the Top: Accountability for results trickles down and does not follow the principle of trickling up. Hence, unless the top person in the department is accountable, others can never be held accountable.


In our next blog this week, we will highlight the next 12 habits.


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