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Managing performance in the public service

How can we create a high-performing public service in Australia? AAP

The focus on performance management both globally and in Australia is not new. Public and private sectors alike have aspired to achieve high performance through performance management systems, procedures, and practices.

However, despite such attention, the performance puzzle remains. The confluence of technological, social and economic change is increasing the urgency to create a high performance Australian public service.

That is why researchers from the University of Canberra, the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales, Canberra are working in collaboration with the Australian Public Service Commission to rethink performance management as a part of the Ahead of the Game Blueprint for Reform.

Crucial to this research is a focus upon developing a high performance public service, rather than simply managing under-performance. To do this, we have developed a new model which brings together work on high performance individuals and groups, and high performance organisations, with new ways of thinking about the system-level governance aspects that can shape performance across the entire APS.

Much has been written on how to drive high performance for teams and individuals, and there has been plenty of focus on the high performance organisation ideal. But to date, we have seen little — if any — attention on the system-level requirements for a high performance public service. Our research bridges this gap by developing an integrated model of high performance.

Source: Deborah Blackman.

Figure 1: Three tier model of high performance

At the micro level, we focus on high performance groups and individuals, and in particular on how to drive behavioural changes that will enable the achievement of organisational goals. Here we give attention to aspects such as employee engagement, commitment, motivation and job satisfaction in creating an environment for high performance.

At the meso (middle)level, we are concerned with high performance organisations within which these individuals and groups operate. Here we pay particular attention to the alignment of organisational systems, including a system of human resource practices which work together in a complementary way to enhance performance, and the development of the managerial capacity to implement the performance management system.

The missing part of the performance story to date has been at the macro level. In our work, we outline the notion of high performance governance which sets the system-wide architecture required for high performance. Here, we are concerned with how a system is steered and managed to deliver on the high performance government agenda. Stewardship, orchestration, inter-organisational and meta-leadership are features crucial for high performance across government with regulatory, administrative, cultural and structural elements also explored.

Our work has also surfaced four key areas of attention which help to explain the enduring nature of the performance management challenge.

Challenges of adaptability

Current performance management approaches do not focus upon supporting organisations and individuals to adapt and respond to changing circumstances or contexts. For fully effective performance management and optimum outcomes, they must be adaptable and flexible, allowing for individual and group differences.


Performance management tends to be a more top-down imposed set of activities; something that is done to employees rather than with them. A lack of understanding about the importance of mutuality – in setting goals and achieving them – can reduce engagement and, in the longer-term, performance.

Organisational competences

Most work on performance management highlights the individual rather than organisational aspects of performance management. We argue that there are important capabilities that need to be developed and nurtured at the organisational level which will enable high performance. A much greater understanding of how organisational resources can be leveraged to enhance performance as well as the routines, structures and processes that support organisational capacity and the capability within an organisation which drive performance improvement, is needed.

Performance management capacity

Effective performance management can only occur where the parties to it are skilled in managing performance. However, currently there are been little attention paid in practice to developing such competencies as part of the broader set of managerial skills.

Our work sets out a bold agenda to achieve the aspirations of the Ahead of the Game report; the creation of a high performance public service which is able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

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