Government leaders and policymakers face many priorities. But a new global survey suggests that perhaps the greatest is improving the impact of government for citizens.

Government leaders have no shortage of priorities. Low inflation, low unemployment rates, more qualified teachers, and affordable health care are just a few which resonate globally. But listing them is one thing, achieving them quite another.

Government isn’t easy. Demographics shift, budgets fluctuate and urbanization continues to reshape countries large and small. At the same time, citizen expectations continue to move inexorably upwards. Unfortunately, while policymakers would point towards many positive achievements, it is also clear that many good ideas in government often struggle when implemented. Too often the results do not match the vision, wasting time and money and damaging public trust in leaders and institutions.

Small wonder, then, that according to the OECD, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40% between 2007 and 2012 – a shift that will weaken the readiness of populations to support public institutions through taxation and to participate in elections.

Making more of an impact

The ultimate test of any policy is whether it makes the difference it sets out to achieve. Regardless of a nation’s system of government, citizens want government to work well. Failure to work effectively means that citizens disengage and good policy ideas become even harder to implement. That’s why BCG has set up the Centre for Public Impact – a new not-for-profit foundation – dedicated to helping improve the positive impact of governments. There is much to do.

The Centre conducted a survey of 1,000 public officials in 25 countries which found that 92% said there was room for improvement in implementation. With nearly half agreeing that there was significant room for improvement, only 20% said they used management tools, such as agreed impact metrics, on all their projects. The findings were remarkably consistent across all the countries surveyed but also across the different policy areas and levels of seniority. The only difference is that those not directly involved in drawing up policy areas and more junior staff had even less optimism about impact than their colleagues.

We believe that public impact is based on three fundamental pillars: proper legitimacy, a well-designed policy and solid delivery. These core elements are interlinked and are underpinned by other integral factors such as political will, well-functioning operations and clarity of objectives. The latter is particularly important – being clear about what it is you are trying to achieve, having clear milestones and closely monitoring your progress are key themes that have emerged from our in–depth study of this issue.

Taking this approach will leave policymakers better placed to achieve their objectives and maximise their impact. One area that requires all these core elements is in achieving sustainable economic growth.

From wealth to well-being – a global public impact challenge

Policymakers nowadays are progressively prioritizing the well-being of citizens themselves – a shift rooted, like much else, in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Economies may be over the worst but the repercussions of the crisis still linger. With unemployment, the high cost of living and austerity continuing to play out across borders, it is welcome that boosting citizen well-being has been thrust centre stage but it is often seen as hard to measure and implement – how to achieve impact in this area remains a huge challenge.

BCG’s Sustainable Economic Development Assessment (SEDA) tracks how well countries are converting wealth and growth into well-being when compared to other nations and seeks to help leaders prioritise their goals for improved well-being. The 2015 report exposes stark differences in performance across the world. During the World Economic Forum on Africa this month, the Centre for Public Impact hosted a breakfast discussion that brought together senior leaders from the public and private sectors across Africa to learn, exchange ideas and inspire each other to achieve better outcomes. BCG’s Economic Development topic leader and co-author of SEDA Douglas Beal, joined me to discuss how well-being is linked to sustainable growth and how leaders can achieve better impact for citizens when they have well-being as the goal.

The discussion was rich, with  Onno Schellekens, CEO, Pharm Access; Sharanjeet Shan, National Executive, The Maths Centre; and Dr Oyo Soyinka, Health Commissioner, Ogun State, Nigeria joining us. A theme that resonated with many was the need for political leadership to be absolutely focused on public impact.  One issue most agreed with was that governments, often understandably, want to focus on the short term gains but delivering real impact for citizens can take longer, and achieving improved well-being is no quick fix. Public servants and leaders, some suggested, might in future be able to put those longer term challenges to bodies that are less pressured by electoral cycles. Working more collaboratively with organisations outside of government is however not always straightforward – for example Sharnjeet Shan, a social entrepreneur honoured by the Schwab Foundation, spoke about the creative tension between disrupting the status quo in challenging government from the outside to do better and collaborating with governments to achieve greater public impact – just one but important area that requires further conversation.

Turning strategies into actual progress is a goal that unites policymakers the world over. But while there is no single blueprint, the key to success lies in prioritizing implementation early and thinking carefully about the elements needed for successful delivery. If policymakers succeed in doing so, then achieving their ambitions on public impact will surely follow.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Adrian Brown is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact, a new not-for-profit foundation of The Boston Consulting Group.

Image: A man walks past buildings at the central business district of Singapore. REUTERS/Nicky Loh.