by Scott Bayley

The symptoms and causes of underperforming public programs

An analysis of ineffective programs


Public sector managers are not always aware of the gaps in the initial design and/or implementation arrangements for their programs. Failings and weaknesses often do not reveal themselves until implementation begins. When things are not working as intended program managers then face the need to do something to get performance back on track. But what to do?

Without the perception that there is a problem, performance improvement has no starting place. Hence the initial driving force is the identification of a difference between the current state and a more desirable one. Program managers need to feel some kind of performance pain. The question is ‘Where does it hurt?’.

Performance pain in public programs can emerge from several interrelated sources including:

  1. The inadequate production of goods and services, the program simply does not produce enough.
  2. The program’s goods and services are of insufficient quality.
  3. The production process is inefficient, too many resources are being consumed by the program.
  4. The program is ineffective, it fails to fulfil its intended purpose, e.g. reduce unemployment.
  5. Client dissatisfaction and complaints.
  6. Staff dissatisfaction, turnover.
  7. Conflicts with other related organisations, coordination problems e.g. federal / state agreements.
  8. Inadequate adaption or innovation in the program, a failure to respond to changing client needs or external circumstances.
  9. Inadequate program reporting.
  10. Lack of external political support from key stakeholders.
  11. Adverse publicity in the media.
  12. Criticisms from watchdog agencies e.g. parliamentary reports, Ombudsman or the Auditor General.
Scott Bayley, Managing Director of Scott Bayley Evaluation Services and former Principal Consultant for Monitoring Evaluation and Learning at Oxford Policy Management (OPM) for the Asia Pacific region.

Finding out where it hurts sets the stage for performance improvement in two ways. It determines whether there is a perceived need for change to improve performance; and it helps to identify the source of the performance pain. Public sector managers benefit from understanding who cares about the performance problem and who is willing and able to do something about it. While identifying where it hurts, managers need to test for commitment to reducing the pain. Experience suggests that the chances for successful performance improvement are increased when groups of actors from multiple levels in the program structure are concerned with addressing a performance gap.

In seeking to identify the underlying causes of performance pain a number of diagnostic approaches are available. Experience suggests that performance difficulties often result from one or more of the following:

  1. Mandate. The program’s mandate is unclear, the program lacks authority or there is a confusion of roles across agencies.
  2. Strategy. The program’s theory of change is faulty, assumptions are untenable, or the strategy does not fit the program’s environment.
  3. Structure. The program’s structure does not fit its environment or its strategy.
  4. Performance leadership. The leadership style is incongruent with the program, there is inadequate governance/accountability.
  5. Culture. The program’s culture and incentives do not support a focus on continuous improvement and achieving results.
  6. Systems. Organisational policies, systems and processes fail to support effective program management and service delivery.
  7. Resources. The level of resources (financial, physical, people, technology) and operational capacity is inappropriate for the program’s design and systems.

Senior leadership's recognition and acceptance of a performance gap that is open to improvement sets the scene for taking corrective action based on addressing these underlying causal factors.


Scott Bayley,
Managing Director
at Scott Bayley Evaluation Services

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