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The Strategic Triangle: How to approximate a compelling measure of public value in government

27 January 2016

News and media


Just as an imperative of the private sector is to create and measure value for its clients and shareholders as an economic measure, the famed ‘bottom line’, so is an imperative of government and its agencies to account for the value it creates for its citizens and taxpayers – as a public (or social) good, or public value.

So asserts Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Mark Moore, a seminal figure in the world of public management. After he coined the term ‘public value’ in the mid-90s, the concept quickly gained prominence in the United States, particularly with not-for-profit organisations. It also appealed to a number of high profile public sector agencies worldwide – including Australia. The concept of the role of the public sector as creators and leaders of ‘public value’ remains a cornerstone of his work, and a key concept across the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s three-week residential Executive Fellows Program.

Moore’s work focuses on the ways in which leaders of public organisations can engage communities in supporting and legitimising governmental work and the role that value commitments play in enabling leadership in public sector enterprises. In his highly influential book Recognizing Public Value (2013), Prof Moore explored how, once created, value can be recognised in an accounting sense. He outlined a philosophy of qualitative assessment that will help public sector managers name, observe and measure the value they produce – or rather, what they should be doing to improve performance within their public sector agency. He explains these notions using the ‘Strategic Triangle’ framework:

Each of the elements of what we call the Strategic Triangle creates a significant intellectual and practical challenge. The triangle demands answers to three tough questions: what’s the public value we’re creating, where’s the legitimacy and support going to come from, and what kind of operational capacity do we need to deliver that? It is not enough to answer each of these questions independently; they all have to align with one another in a particular concrete circumstance.

Figure 1.0 The Strategic Triangle

Bringing to his teaching a wealth of understanding gained through research, observation, and the case method of teaching, Prof Moore facilitates a learning environment well suited to senior executives accustomed to high-level independent thinking and action.

What happens in a case discussion is that you show the participants a particular individual facing a particular challenge, and beginning to think about and act on the problem at hand. You then ask the evaluative question: ‘how do you think that manager is doing?’ and the payoff question, ‘what do you think he or she ought to do?’. What always surprises them is that there are 10 different answers in the room …It then becomes possible to discuss that and explore each logic and rationale and the degree to which it seems robust and reliable.

Prof Moore’s teachings offer insights into managerial expertise for broad governance, and his concept of public value resonates strongly with public sector leaders:

The idea of public value is appealing to many public service managers because it describes a task they want to be able to do and wish they had been assigned to do. As such it gives them a little bit of an uplift, an inspiration and a focus for their work. It also helps them remember why they went into the public service at the outset.

Prof Moore teaches in the Executive Fellows Program and the shorter workshop Recognising Public Value.