South Australia’s five key steps to embracing public value thinking

South Australia’s five key steps to embracing public value thinking
  • Published Date: 11 October 2018

Towards the end of its long term in office, from 2002 to March 2018, the Labor-led Government of South Australia (2002–2018) embraced Mark Moore’s characterisation of the public manager’s role in creating public value.

A new article in Policy Design and Practice by Karen Ballintyne and ANZSOG Professor Michael Mintrom shows how public value was placed in the centre of policy development, and details the factors that made this possible.

South Australia embraced public value in a whole-of-government manner, which was a world-first despite the concept being created in the US, with its different political and bureaucratic systems. 

The authors say that South Australia was fertile ground for the adoption of public value, due to its small size (1.7 million people) and stable politics. Whole-of-government efforts to enhance public value could be more difficult to pursue in more complex, politically fraught jurisdictions.

An important factor in the adoption of the initiative was that it had the personal support of then Premier Jay Weatherill, but the concept could not have become so deeply embedded without a strong effort across the South Australian public service.

The article outlines five key insights from the experience, which show that public services can incorporate the insights of public value into their work in a comparatively short time. The article also identifies what it takes to successfully implement whole-of-government initiatives. 

How SA defined public value

The South Australian approach took a framework devised with individual public managers in mind and accorded it a central place in driving whole-of-government change. That change affected all facets of policy design and practice in the state.

Ballintyne and Mintrom’s article uses the term public value as Professor Moore did in his original definition: ‘the public sector equivalent of private value in corporate management’. Under this definition public managers seek to enhance the value to citizens of government-funded activities.

The core of Moore’s public value framework consists of ‘the strategic triangle’.

Energetic, results-oriented public managers must seek to align the three points or corners of the strategic triangle:

  • If and how a policy will create public value, and whether there are alternatives
  • Whether the authorising environment – both inside and outside government – supports the policy
  • Whether the public service has the operational capability to deliver the policy successfully

This way of thinking was not foreign to the SA public service. Since 2003, a growing cohort of more than 50 carefully selected senior public servants from South Australia completed either the ANZSOG two-year Executive Master of Public Administration degree, or the three-week Executive Fellows Program, which often included classes on public value taught by Professor Moore. 

More than 70 others gained exposure to Professor Moore in bespoke ANZSOG training sessions held in Adelaide for senior officials.

Ballintyne and Mintrom’s article outlines how public value was adopted at senior levels of the public service, with the initial phase focusing on education through a Public Value Working Group.

Subsequently, a Policy and Public Value team, located in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet was established with terms of reference sufficiently broad that members were able to continually monitor new policies and programs in the state, provide strong consultative support to agencies developing new initiatives, and promote learning across the government system.

Public value was worked into the everyday business of government in several ways. All Cabinet submissions were required to follow a template calling for explicit discussion of key issues embodied in the public value framework.

Each submission was required to describe the expected effect of the proposal and explain why it represented public value. The submissions were also required to outline the authorising environment, as well as operating capability, which would include discussion of the quantity of proposed outputs and how the quality of outputs and outcomes would be measured.

All state agencies also were required to use a revised annual report format designed to incorporate public value. This was yet another way that the focus on public value enhancement was embedded into day-to-day processes. In addition, public value enhancement was increasingly included as part of the performance contracts of chief executives of South Australian government agencies.

Why the public value experiment worked

The article outlines five reasons why South Australia was able to successfully embed public value in the day-to-day policy work of its public service.

1. Support from powerful leaders

The enhancement of public value as a whole-of-government initiative in SouthAustralia emerged through the enthusiastic embrace and promotion of public value by the state’s highest elected official, the then Premier Jay Weatherill. His support gave permission to public sector leaders to drive a broad strategy around enhancing public value, starting with policy design.

2. Clarity on what is to be achieved

Significant effort was made in South Australia to define public value in a way that was easily understood, without making it a watered-down concept that could be used to label anything government plays a role in producing. When what needs to be achieved is clear, it becomes easier for leaders and managers in government to seek and gain support from others.

3. Dedicated organisational resources

The Government of South Australia established a governance structure and operational capacity to embed public value thinking across the public sector. This ensured senior people in the public service were accountable for implementation of policies and programs consistent with the enhancement of public value.

4. A coalition of committed practitioners

Beyond the structural changes that were made to promote public value enhancement across South Australia, several strategies were pursued to establish and support a strong coalition of policy designers and public managers dedicated to the enhancement of public value.

5. Continuous communication, learning and adaptation

With a dedicated unit in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, it was possible for public sector leaders in South Australia to establish systems supporting good communication across the whole of government about the pursuit of public value. The same mechanisms that allow this gathering and sharing of information created opportunities for central analysis of efforts that had worked well and others requiring more support or more time to yield desired results.

Making public value permanent

The article concludes that SA is a unique case: where a Premier personally championed the public value framework against a backdrop of relative political stability and a tradition of openness to big ideas informing public actions.

Ballintyne and Mintrom suggest much can be learned from the clarity attained in pursuing public value, the care taken to appropriately resource the initiative, and the embedding of public value considerations in all Cabinet submissions and related policy development processes. Such efforts can do a lot to ensure the durability of any reform efforts, including those with whole-of-government ambitions.

Mark Moore’s original conceptualisation of public value and ways of pursuing it was deliberately non-partisan in nature. Moore’s approach has been applied by individual public managers working in many jurisdictions.

The application of Moore’s public value framework and the strategic triangle will be of ongoing benefit to the South Australian public. 

The newly-elected government in South Australia has an ambitious agenda. 

Some of its thinking has been informed by efforts in New Zealand to promote cross-departmental pursuit of valued social and economic outcomes. 

Public value is highly consistent with these ideas. Indeed, the public value framework is sufficiently relevant and suitably adaptable to be of use to all governments that are committed to good policy design and delivery.