Government as a public service

What is public service work worth in the grander scheme of things?

In the grander scheme of things, what is our work worth? What is its value to the world? We can attempt to measure costs and perceived benefit to an organisation and to customers. But these kinds of measures are not necessarily appropriate for measuring contribution to a better world, as they look only at economics: costs, savings and profit. What if we could show that our work contributed directly to, for example, a reduction in poverty and to an improvement in social wellbeing? And what if we could also be transparent about the funds spent on initiatives that do not contribute?

I recently attended a conference with The Right Honourable Helen Clark ONZ as keynote speaker. The imperative message from all the speakers was that we should and we must embed a measurement of our contribution into our daily work – that it is urgent now. It was even suggested that competition be introduced by using league tables to show how well (or not) we perform against other regions and countries.

There is already a list of benefits and a framework in place that allow us to do just that. It has been my ambition, for some years, that we use them as a standard during any business case or benefit measuring activity.

The United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define a vision for our world to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, ensure prosperity for all, and protect our planet. They apply to all development in all nations. It is my belief that the more we focus on the SDGs, the more our work will implement them.

In this post, I am going to look at two of these goals by way of demonstration.

Framework for mapping interactions between SDGs

We also need to look at the interactions between SDGs, within a national context, as they are dependent on each other. Contribution, trade-offs or perverse outcomes between them will need to be scored. Nilsson, Griggs and Visbeck have developed a framework to help us do this. They use measures +1, +2, +3 to indicate that an action or goal is:

  • 'enabling' creates conditions enabling another goal
  • 'reinforcing' aiding achievement of another goal
  • 'indivisible' inextricably linked to achievement of another goal.

Interaction types of -1, -2, -3 rate the negative interactions — 'constraining', 'counteracting' and 'cancelling' respectively, and 0 for no significant positive or negative interactions. An example of a negative policy in New Zealand that might disincentivise students to study for better jobs if they do not qualify for a student living allowance, is that they can receive a job seeker allowance but only when school is not in session. This useful matrix shows the influence scale, other considerations and examples.

Global Compact

My thinking is not new. The UN Global Compact supports government and organisations to do business responsibly by aligning strategies to actions that advance broader societal goals such as the SDGs and its own ten universal principles i.e. by making global goals local.

A New Zealand case study helping victims of crime

My current work in New Zealand, as part of the Result 10 programme, proposes an integrated communications service across the justice sector – integrated from a customer's perspective. It removes the need for victims of crime to find out what is happening with their case, what will happen next, and what services or advice are available to help them. We already know from extensive research that government makes its customers work too hard, which can aggravate the negative impacts of the whole experience, and so we can and should remove some of that burden. This is just a starting point but during a prototype, victims reported that the service reduced stress and made them feel that their situation mattered. They also said that they would recommend the service to others.

In the diagram below I have combined two methods – cause and effect, and the Nilsson, Griggs’, Visbeck framework. This is a quick incomplete mock-up to demonstrate my technique as a way to start the discussion. If I am correct in my analysis, we see a reinforcing or virtuous loop that, as we decrease stress for victims, we directly improve mental well-being (SDG3). Achieving this goal might be said to create the conditions necessary to enable SDG 11 by way of more resilient communities better equipped to recover quickly and protect themselves from crime. If communities feel safer, then stress is again reduced and so on.

A diagram showing the benefits scores.
SDGs Initiative Scoring - case study for victims of crime receiving a new integrated communications service
Long description of SDGs Initiative Scoring diagramme
The diagram shows 9 coloured ellipses that represent SDGs (purple), outcomes (yellow) and services to be provided (green). They are connected with arrows to show cause and effect. The three services are “timely advice”, “service suggestions” and “case updates”. These show a contribution to two outcomes “relevant timely information” and “felt my situation mattered”. These outcomes contribute to two further outcomes “feeling safe” and “less stress”. The outcome of “less stress” is shown to directly aid the achievement of the goal SDG3 Good health and well-being (the arrow being labelled +2). The goal SDG3 is shown to create the conditions enabling goal SDG11 Sustainable cities and communities (the arrow being labelled +1) which in turn further increases the outcome “feeling safe” and consequently “less stress” which reinforces the positive loop to SDG3 again and again.

In the next phase we will test anticipated benefits such as improved well-being and mental health after becoming a victim of crime, which in turn may increase resilience and capacity to continue normal working and home lives more quickly after such a disruptive experience — surely an improvement to social outcomes that everyone wants. We might also, traditionally, measure reduction or increase in agency costs associated with call centres answering people's queries trying to find out what is happening with their case i.e. the cost associated with 'service failure demand'.


We need to seriously consider how our work in the public sector provides a genuine public service. This means that we need to find a way to model and measure our work — with people and the planet at the centre. More broadly, we need to think and plan for tangible effects; a mentality that insists on a contribution to a better sustainable world.


Creative commons by attribution to Suzanne Maxted

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