Ever since I published the results of my research into the characteristics of high performance organizations, I have attracted much interest from both profit and non-profit organizations. I have done numerous talks and seminars on high performance organizations (HPOs) in all kinds of companies in many industries as well as healthcare and educational institutions. What’s been missing however from this list are governmental agencies. It seems the message of “high performance,” with its emphasis on continuous improvement and dedicated attention to clients (in this case, civilians and the business community) fails to resonate substantially in government. I have hardly done an HPO Diagnosis in governmental institutions and I am on average invited to speak to public officials only once or twice a year.
Why is this? Why do governments – with its principle task of serving us, the public – not want to study the characteristics of high performance, then apply it in their sector? Why don’t governmental officials see the HPO Framework as the natural successor to New Public Management? After all, in this movement – which had its heyday in the 1990s – much emphasis was placed on increasing the quality of governmental processes and services, making these both better measurable and manageable, and delivering extra-added value to citizens.
Is this lack of interest due to the long-term orientation of HPO, perhaps out of an inherent tension with the short-term nature of politicians, the ‘masters’ of governmental agencies? Or is it because public institutions basically are a monopoly, having been around for ages, and thus feeling no threat of extinction? Therefore they feel no great drive for improving?
If this is the case, why is it then that in developing countries – where government often is the main economic power and also the biggest employer of the country – there exists an increasing and serious interest in HPO? Last year I was invited to speak at an HPO Summit in Windhoek, Namibia, to an audience of governmental agencies. I also conducted an HPO Diagnosis of Rwanda’s Ministry of Local Governance and Social Affairs. This year I am conducting HPO Diagnoses of Rwanda’s International Criminal Tribunal and Zambia’s Ministry of Commerce Trade and Industry. In the meantime, several Presidents of African countries have stated publically that their governmental institutions must improve considerably (and thus become HPOs) in order to ensure that their countries will seriously develop economically. These presidents realize that an efficient, and above all effective, governmental sector is crucial for the well-being of their countries and inhabitants.
Perhaps Western governments suffer from the dialectics of progress. After all, most Western countries have been doing relatively well since World War II and their governmental institutions have been performing adequately. Now however with budgets tightening all over the Western world, and the likelihood this will be the case for many years to come, civilians are at the same time becoming more demanding. Thus, adequate is no longer good enough! Western governmental agencies must therefore emerge from their comfort zones and begin focusing on new and better ways of operating if they hope to deal with their increasingly difficult circumstances, not to mention stay responsive and relevant.
My research into the characteristics of high performing governmental institutions reveals that these organizations, if they truly want to become HPOs, need to focus on the following six themes:
- Improve the “aura” of public sector managers. Since the HPO factor “management quality” represents the most important factor, it is of paramount importance that management of public sector organisations focus on creating inspirational leadership in the sector. Public sector managers have to transform themselves into high performance managers (HPMs), i.e., managers guided by principles of client focus, continuous improvement and quality.
- Strengthen the resoluteness of management. Part of the aura of management is being resolute so that confidence can be instilled into employees. For this to happen, management must become more decisive and action-oriented. In addition, management must become more decisive when it comes to non-performers by dealing with them, within legal boundaries, as quickly and effectively as possible.
- Become more innovative so as to service clients better. The governmental organization has to develop a “manifesto” that explains how it will add more and more value to society. This can be accomplished by developing a strategy that explains what makes the organisation unique in its services to society, and then continuously improve and renew its core competencies and services so that civilians and companies are serviced optimally.
- Improve the performance management process of the organisation. Performance management reports need to incorporate specific critical success factors and key performance indicators that will measure client dedication as well as important processes in the organisation that increase everyone’s performance in terms of client dedication. These reports then must be distributed to everybody in the organisation so that all employees become aware of what is required in order for the public sector organisation to excel in specified areas.
- Improve process management within the organisation. Public institutions have to make sure that their processes are genuinely improved, simplified and aligned. This is needed in order to truly strengthen the institution’s overall client dedication.
- Increase the quality of the workforce. Public sector organisations have to concentrate on increasing the quality of employees by training them to become more flexible and resilient, and by urging employees to spend more time on communicating and on exchanging knowledge and best practices, both inside and outside the organization.
Governments in several developing countries are leading the way to a better, HPO-level public sector. I call upon the “developed” governments in the Western world to follow their shining example. Only in this way will they help us all through the difficult economic times still ahead!
André de Waal is Associate Professor High Performance Organizations at the Maastricht School of Management and Academic Director of the HPO Center (http://www.hpocenter.com). He started a five-year research project (involving 1470 organizations in 50 countries) examining the factors of sustainable high performance. The result of this research, the HPO Framework, will be published worldwide in his upcoming book “What Makes A High Performance Organization – Validated Factors of Competitive Advantage that Apply Worldwide”.