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Published: 01:11, May 31, 2022 | Updated: 09:53, May 31, 2022
Why and how KPIs can help improve governance
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:01:11, May 31, 2022 Updated:09:53, May 31, 2022 By Ho Lok-sang

Mr John Lee Ka-chiu, the chief executive-designate, has suggested that he will use key performance indicators (KPIs) to improve governance. This is good. But how should KPIs be used? 

First of all, KPIs should never be used mechanically and simplistically. It is tempting to use quantitative targets as KPIs because they are easy to understand and not costly to administer. But some quantitative targets could be taken out of context and be misleading. One notable example is the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in the United States that became law in 2001. A search on the internet produced multiple entries about how the results-based approach legislation produced serious perverse effects. One title from Education Week reads: “Lessons in Deception: A Decade After Implementation, NCLB ‘Safety Net’ Yields Fraud and Misuse.” NCLB had good intentions, namely to ensure that every student would be able to read and do math by mid-2014. This was to be achieved by punishing schools if some quantitative targets are not met within a specified time span. But it was applied mechanically without regard to the different challenges that each school faces. “They also applied if a subgroup of students — students with disabilities, students from low-income families, students learning English, or students from a particular racial group — didn’t make progress,” wrote Libby Nelson in a 2015 Vox online commentary. The experience of NCLB suggests we should not use a cutoff line on a single indicator to define success or failure. Instead, marks should be given on multiple indicators that reflect the different challenges of the different units. 

... it is important to note that the single ultimate KPI is how well the government serves its people. One monitor of this is subjective well-being. ... We need, of course, separate KPIs for different government bodies that are responsible for different services

University staff are typically evaluated according to three criteria: teaching quality, research output and service. For teaching quality, the easy indicator is a course and teaching evaluation. But students can give a teacher a good or poor rating for different reasons. So in general, proper and fair assessment of the teacher’s performance must also include at least a review of the teacher’s teaching portfolio that includes all lecture notes and materials and tests and exams given. For research quality, a handy indicator is the number of publications in high ranked journals. Again, excess focus on this indicator would undermine staff interest in studying local issues and participating in policy debates that matter to the community.    

Going back to the wider issue of using KPIs for public governance improvement, it is important to note that the single ultimate KPI is how well the government serves its people. One monitor of this is subjective well-being. I had proposed adding this question to the census and by-census surveys. Unfortunately, the commissioner for census and statistics at the time declined my request, saying that there are many requests and it was not possible to entertain all the requests. Although there are different annual surveys on Hong Kong people’s happiness conducted by NGOs or academics, adding a single question in the census or by-census will allow much better representation of subjective well-being for the population. Because so much information is already gathered in the census and by-census, adding a single question on subjective well-being will allow scientific analysis hitherto not possible. The special administrative region government may note that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had launched a Better Life Index as early as 2011.    

We need, of course, separate KPIs for different government bodies that are responsible for different services. I will cite several that have made news in recent weeks.   

One is lifesaving services. I would hope that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department would provide an annual report on drowning incidents in swimming pools and beaches under its jurisdiction. It should lay out how many people have been saved successfully, and how many people drowned. We will then have an idea of how much additional safety swimmers will have when lifesaving services are available. I was able to find, unfortunately, only a “Hong Kong Drowning Report Based on review of records registered between 2012 and 2016 to the Coroner’s Court”. There is no information on how many lives were saved by lifesavers on duty. 

Another is pest control. The responsibility for pest control in public places comes under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. The department does collect data on rodent infestation rate and a Dengue Fever Gravidtrap Index. However, the rodent infestation rate has been criticized for grossly understating the severity of the problem. Historical data for specific districts is not readily available. An index that averages out the indices across Hong Kong is not of much use. Since pest problems are always local problems, District Councils should actively monitor the changes to the indices, and communicate with the FEHD regularly in their fight against pests.     

Still another is industrial safety. A worker was killed by a collapsed working platform at a construction site in Tseung Kwan O. The worker’s father is over 70 years old and had suffered from a stroke. He left behind his wife and two children. I had proposed earlier that fines should be mandatory for every fatal industrial accident regardless of fault and should be raised by a factor of 10 from HK$500,000 ($63,700) to HK$5 million. If this fine is paid to the family of the victim, the immediate financial difficulties for the family will be much alleviated.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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