Citizens and businesses today have high expectations of their governments. They look for effective and efficient services that are inclusive, transparent, and delivered using the latest technology. The ADB and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently published a study containing a treasure trove of data and indicators describing how countries in Southeast Asia are doing in these areas. Combined with other evidence on performance, the data will help governments, citizens, businesses and international partners identify strengths and weaknesses in country performance and design strategies for improvement.
Some of the results may be surprising. For example, an international assessment by the OECD published in 2016 regarding the performance of Viet Nam’s education system in the areas of math and science found that the country’s performance outpaced many wealthier countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. No other low-income country in the assessment performed at this level. Vietnam’s performance shows that achieving high quality in education is possible even at lower income levels.
Viet Nam’s achievement should inspire other Southeast Asian countries of similar income levels to conclude that they, too, can provide high-quality public services. To do so, governments will have to adopt a citizen-centric approach that expands efforts to consult citizens about their needs, gain their participation in policymaking and bridge the gaps in service delivery. This assumes more openness, engagement, transparency and accountability by government, and a proactive approach to anticipate citizens’ needs for a better future.
The ADB- OECD study benchmarked Southeast Asian countries to each other and to member countries of the OECD, which includes some of the largest economies and wealthiest countries in the world. Countries in the region also out-performed the OECD average in some other areas.
For example, in the proactive publication of government data that can be shared, analyzed and reused on a large scale, Indonesia and Malaysia exceed the OECD average performance. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Cambodia and Myanmar all have a higher level of government investment as a percentage of GDP than the OECD average. Finally, six Southeast Asian countries do better than the OECD average in using performance assessments in human resources decisions in central government, with Singapore achieving the highest rating.
A report card for Southeast Asian governments.
On the other hand, there are wide gaps in performance across Southeast Asian countries. For example, in public finance, fiscal balances as a percentage of GDP ranged from a deficit of 21.5% to a surplus of 3.3% in 2016. Government debt as a percentage of GDP across Southeast Asian countries also varied significantly, from a low of 3% to a high of 107% in 2016, and debt-to-GDP ratios increased in six out of 10 Southeast Asian countries between 2007 and 2016.
Other indicators reveal areas where change seems particularly difficult. For example, despite women’s relatively strong presence in the public sector – making up between 36% (in Lao People’s Democratic Republic) and 54% (in the Philippines) of the public workforce – they remain underrepresented in leadership positions in parliaments and in senior ministerial posts. Women’s representation in parliament ranged from 30% to just 5%. Across Southeast Asian countries, only 10% of ministerial posts were filled by women in 2017, compared to 28% in OECD countries.
Southeast Asian countries have begun laying the groundwork for open government, but challenges remain. Only four countries have formal requirements for all public sector organizations to provide open data to the public, and just half the countries surveyed monitor and evaluate the impact of these initiatives. For five Southeast Asian countries, this may be because the institutions responsible for coordinating open government lack an adequate mandate to do so. Improving performance in these areas will require political will, as well as well-designed and carefully implemented policies to close the gaps between high- and low-performing countries, and between Southeast Asian and OECD countries.
Open government; a diverse, representative and capable workforce; and a strategic use of data and digital technologies are all important for designing policies and services that are better targeted to people’s needs and expectations. A “people-centric” approach to public governance and public service can support the efficient use of limited public resources, strengthen the legitimacy of public institutions and restore trust in the competence and values of the public service .Performance management, based on robust indicators and data, can also help improve how the public administration operates and delivers services.
Benchmarking exercises provide governments with evidence to identify performance gaps, and suggest tools and approaches that can help close those gaps. Such exercises can be important catalysts for widespread and lasting improvements in Southeast Asian countries.