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Hard-won Lessons From a Government Reform Pioneer

Auckland, New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand. Naruedom Yaempongsa/

You can’t solve “horizontal” problems with “vertical” solutions, warns University of Maryland professor Don Kettl. That’s something officials in New Zealand learned the hard way.

Nearly three decades ago, New Zealand pioneered government reforms to make agencies more accountable and effective. While successful, it exacerbated another challenge facing government agencies—addressing problems that span traditional agency boundaries, known as “horizontal” problems. So, New Zealand undertook a new round of reform in 2012 to address a handful of persistent societal and economic problems by creating cross-agency performance goals, with measurable targets, and with a new approach to governance.

In a new report for the IBM Center for The Business of Government, Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd, who both are in New Zealand helping assess the progress of the five-year-old reform initiative, describe the approach, its framework, and the results of the initiative. They also offer insights that can be helpful to other governments pursuing similar objectives.

Interestingly, at about the same time, the U.S. federal government also created an initiative to address horizontal problems. In 2010, Congress updated the Government Performance and Results Act, directing the Office of Management and Budget to identify a handful of existing challenges that cut across agency boundaries and focus efforts to make progress.

The New Zealand Approach  

In New Zealand, ministers chose 10 crosscutting problems that were important to New Zealanders, and set a challenging five-year target for each. The leaders of relevant agencies collectively were held responsible for achieving the targets.

The changes that the government sought, known as the Ten Results, included:

  1. Reduce the number of people continuously receiving Jobseeker Support benefits for more than 12 months.
  2. Increase participation in early childhood education.
  3. Increase infant immunisation rates and reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever
  4. Reduce the number of assaults on children.
  5. Increase the proportion of 18-year-olds with high school diploma or equivalent qualification.
  6. Increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees.
  7. Reduce the rates of total crime, violent crime and youth crime.
  8. Reduce the criminal re-offending rate.
  9. New Zealand businesses have a one-stop online shop for all government advice and support they need to run and grow their business.
  10. New Zealanders can complete their transactions with government easily in a digital environment.

The original targets aimed to reach completion by mid 2017, with progress reported publicly every six months. According to Scott and Boyd, this new approach proved remarkably successful, with dramatic improvements in all 10 results areas. The approach was seen as so useful that the government is now defining the next set of 10 problems to be solved between 2017 and 2022.

There were a number of management lessons for reform efforts elsewhere:

Identifying the Targets

New Zealand’s Cabinet and top career executives identified 10 well-defined, persistent problems that had stymied government leaders in the past. These were typically narrow in scope. For example, one goal was to reduce the number of people on long-term benefits under the  Jobseeker Support program by 30 percent by mid-2017. Because career executives were involved in identifying and defining the problem and the goal, the authors note: “agencies felt more committed to solving problems they were involved in selecting.”

Selecting meaningful targets “appeared to cause a greater sense of ownership and effort by public servants,” the authors found.

Ensuring Accountability

New Zealand experimented with different ways of holding its leaders from different agencies accountable for achieving a shared result. They initially designated individuals—“one among equals”—to take the lead. That wasn’t effective. They then attempted to hold each of the leaders individually accountable for working together. That didn’t work either. Finally, they shifted to collective accountability, where, the authors note: “Chief executives were either rewarded or sanctioned based on the collective performance of the interagency group in addressing the nominated problem.”

Bonuses were awarded on the basis of achievements made by the whole team. The authors concluded that the “collective responsibility” approach helped counteract the tendency to focus only on the interests of their individual agencies and work more collaboratively as a team.

Managing Collaboration  

Boyd and Ross found that when agencies were expected to work together to achieve a common goal, a first step was to develop trusting relationships among the partners. Also, it was important for the new team to achieve an early “quick win” to sustain momentum.

Another observation was that “most successful cases limited core decision-making to two or three agencies” and that others would be involved on an as-needed basis. They pointedly noted: “This is in contrast to advice offered elsewhere that emphasizes the importance of inclusion of all potentially interested parties.” They found that as group size increases, less got done.

Another element of success was having a jointly-staffed program management office, which signals greater commitment by the participants than does an office supported by only one entity.

Reporting Progress

New Zealand reports progress every six months on a color-coded dashboard, based on recommendations from the responsible team. The one-page “snapshot” for each result provides trend information and links to success stories. “Beginning in 2013, agencies began to submit short text or video descriptions, showing innovations that had a positive impact on individuals and groups in New Zealand.” This turned into a healthy competition between agencies and by late 2016, there were 89 written case studies and 12 videos posted on a central website.

New Zealand v. U.S.   

Informal assessments of the first round of the U.S. government’s cross-agency priority (CAP) goals (covering Obama’s second term) suggest similarities in the lessons learned. However, the U.S. approach tends to be broader in scope for each goal, with multiple sub-objectives and strategies. For example, the cybersecurity CAP goal encompasses three distinct initiatives with different strategies and multiple indicators and targets.  

There is oftentimes not a distinct outcome target to be achieved, in contrast to the New Zealand Results Programme approach. The CAP Goals are seen as a way to demonstrate top-level commitment, provide higher visibility to those working on implementation, and tend to focus on a qualitative assessment of progress toward outcomes over time. This emphasis on qualitative narratives of progress was noted in a 2016 GAO report, which characterizes this approach as a “lack of transparency about measuring progress.”  

However, there are tradeoffs between setting specific targets to be achieved (the New Zealand model) vs. setting broader, interrelated goals (the US model). Both New Zealand and the US have new leaders who are in the process of reformulating their goals for coming years. They could learn a lot from each other.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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