9 August 2016

Measuring government agency effectiveness and efficiency is complicated;  and more so when comparing performance across the public sector.  The Performance Improvement Framework around which continuous improvement of NZ State Services is evaluated was refined again this year, diminishing the value of previous PIF reports for comparison purposes. The Trans Tasman Annual Review of Government Departments is probably too crude a tool to be taken seriously.

Making international comparisons is no less complex. The World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators and the Ease of Doing Business Index (NZ 2nd in 2015),  Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index  (NZ 4th in 2015) and numerous other measures like the Human Development Index (NZ 9th= in 2014) or even the World Happiness Index (NZ 9th in 2016) suggest the likely character of agencies but are insufficient to measure the competence and  efficiency of national agencies. Within the OECD the annual Government at a Glance survey is a generic performance indicator.

Nevertheless there are  international surveys that serve as  de facto comparators – assuming agencies have similar responsibilities; for example the Open Budget Index  may be seen as a comparative assessment of Finance Ministries – in which case the NZ Treasury could claim to be the best in the World, New Zealand having ranked highest on the two most recent Open Budget Indexes. The Global Peace Index where New Zealand has never ranked lower than 4th place may confirm the effectiveness of agencies in the Justice sector.

But some World Bank measures may provide a contrary picture.  The World Bank recently published the 2016 Logistics Performance Index, which measures the efficiency of clearance processes by border control agencies, – including speed, simplicity and predictability of formalities.  One product is a World Bank-produced pecking order of custom services in the 161 jurisdictions whose data is analysed. The top performing customs services, when the scores for the last four surveys are averaged,  are in Germany, Netherlands and Singapore.

NZ Customs Service has a mean rank of 22nd although New Zealand’s overall logistics performance puts it in 31st place. The New Zealand score dropped substantially in the 2016 index – to 37th place – which lowered the average of 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 LPIs.  Last week Indian media made play of India’s customs service performing better than New Zealand’s.

In the October 2015 UMR survey of public respect for government services in New Zealand, the NZ Customs Service was found to be the third most respected after the Fire Service and Police – and a little ahead of the Department of Conservation. If that is the perception New Zealanders have of an agency which rates poorly among comparable jurisdictions, a reasonable inference may be that the performance of agencies that are less well-regarded by New Zealanders is very poor compared with equivalent agencies in other developed jurisdictions.

Perhaps we see only what we want to see – and even when seeking to be objective “….we don’t see things as they are but as we are ourselves.”