Implicit KPIs Can Trump Explicit Ones

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) have only made their appearance in parts of the public sector over the past decade or so. Some Services are ahead of others. KPIs have been written into some Executive level contracts with effects on payment, while others have been cascaded down to individual Work and Development Plans or Job Descriptions.

But it isn’t as though implicit KPIs haven’t been around forever. Public servants have always been able to make career-ending mistakes whether there were KPIs or not.

It’s just that now there are explicit KPIs that sit alongside the implicit ones.

And the implicit KPIs can trump change driven by the explicit ones, and undermine public sector reform at every level. What’s more, part of the problem is that Ministerial Offices are setting explicit KPIs for departments that are in conflict with the implicit ones that those Offices also expect.

What are the Public Sector’s Implicit KPIs?

Straight talking? Ministerial Offices want a department that:

  • minimises scandal
  • keeps bad news out of the media and good news in
  • reveals no more information to the public than is absolutely necessary
  • in no circumstances embarrasses the Minister
  • makes a publicly reportable effort to implement the Government’s agenda, whether the outcome is real or not.

This is just the political reality of the Westminster system. No point in quibbling about it.

Explicit vs Implict

As soon as there are explicit KPIs for government department Executives, they have to work alongside the longstanding, immutable, implict KPIs listed above.

And if those explicit KPIs are related to reform within government departments – such as the red tape reduction targets rolled out in the Australian Public Service – they will only get delivered properly if they don’t conflict with the implicit ones.

What would a Minister’s Office do if as part of a reform some controversy arose? Which KPI would the Minister’s Office stress more: no Ministerial embarrassment, or delivery of a red tape target? Do I need to ask?

While the political world is a particularly good example, the same is true of any large organisation.

If the implicit expectations at the centre of organisational culture don’t match the formal expectations in the KPI management system, something has to give. Usually, cultural expectations are met, and the formal targets are gamed to appear as though they have been met.

KPIs are no panacea, and sometimes, nothing more than trouble (more on that later). But for any reformer the key message is:

Implicit trumps explicit. 



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