Policy report

Social sector productivity: a task perspective

Research Note 2017/01
Productivity Public sector Community sector New Zealand

The social sector or ‘social services sector’ delivers a wide range of services to New Zealanders throughout their lives (Whitcombe, 2009; Social Sector Forum, 2014, p. 1). The significance of the social sector for achieving positive outcomes in the lives of New Zealanders is reflected in its contribution to eight of the ten Better Public Services targets (MSD, 2014, p. 7).

Productivity is an important concept in the social sector because a more productive social sector will increase wellbeing, all else being equal (NZPC, 2015, p. 30). However, if we are to improve social sector productivity we must first measure where it stands, and herein lies the challenge (Hanushek & Ettema, 2015, p. 1).

This research note focuses on measuring productivity, with an emphasis not on specific measures but rather adopting a public management lens and considering the implications and risks of using productivity measures in this space. The discussion will centre on the James Q. Wilson matrix framework as discussed in Gregory (1995a, pp. 172-173), which illustrates the importance of distinguishing among different social sector tasks when considering performance measurement.

This research note suggests that standard productivity measurement may not be compatible with tasks that have unobservable outputs and outcomes. In such cases, other measures of performance are needed. Nonetheless, standard measures appear compatible with some tasks, and their use could enable a greater understanding of social sector productivity and lead to improved living standards.


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