In spring 2006, after the presentation of the OECD Innovation Policy Review of Luxembourg, the Minister turned to me and asked: “And who shall implement all these ideas?” Later the same day, we had a meeting with his staff on supporting his ministry in the negotiation of performance agreements with their research centres.
This was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with Luxembourg in the implementation of performance agreements as the key public management instrument. The underlying principles were:
- Negotiation, based on an initial proposal from the centres
- Focus on outputs that can be directly managed by the organisation
- Focus on outputs that are relevant to others outside the centre – scientific community, industry, societal actors
- Focus on only a few types of outputs, not 62 KPIs.
Three years later, in the second round we again participated in the negotiation, but this time as a silent participant, raising our voice here and there; the ministry staff had learned their lessons …
From performance agreements to good governance
A couple of years later, a great chance came knocking on our door – and we opened it. The Czech Republic was planning to invest €1.6 billion in the establishment of Centres of Excellence and Regional Research Centres. We proposed not only to evaluate respective proposals but to follow up with the negotiation of performance agreements. They did so and out of the 120 proposals the reviewers gave green light to almost 50 proposals.
Our role was the following:
- Moderating the consensus meetings to make sure that the evaluators not only gave a red or green light but to highlight those aspects deserving most attention in the subsequent negotiation of performance agreements
- Negotiation of performance agreements themselves. In one case, we agreed after one hour – resulting in applause and a virtual toast – whereas in another it took eight meetings and a rejection of the candidate for director.
In the end, we contributed to savings of €200 million, and we increased the planned relevant outputs by one third.
In the course of time, we learned a major lesson, later supported by a small inspiring project in Austria, resulting in coining the notion of “unlocking strategic resources and opportunities”.
The project concerned the governance of research at four universities and their attempts to identify and decide upon their research priorities. One performed a SWOT analysis (234 items, extensive report, six months). The other one spent an afternoon, a dinner, and by 9 p.m. they had a robust consensus about their priorities. The two other universities experienced serious leadership crises: one got worse due to their crisis, the other recovered because of theirs.
This happened in the same period, the same country, the same ministry, university act and directives, criteria, templates, etc. The lesson: whatever the situation is, there is always a wider scope for autonomy and good governance. The key challenge is to unlock strategic resources and opportunities, make them explicit, identify and attribute ownership.
From government to research institutions and agencies
Looking back a decade, we started with projects aiming to support governments to learn and fulfil their roles as principals vis-à-vis their agents – and to better match these two roles; our role was to act as an honest broker. In the course of time, however, we enjoyed a voyage of discovery, sometimes an expedition, where we directly helped research institutions and universities, but also agencies. We had lots of opportunities to learn and to share our learnings with our clients in various regards, such as:
- Reviewing their profile and performance
- Redefining their mission
- Reorganising their internal structures
- Paving ways how to link up with national / European policies and actions.
In the course of time, we have earned the trust of our clients but also the privilege to learn and transform these learnings into support for our clients. When looking at numbers, a thoroughly positive balance can be drawn up: more than 40 performance-agreement negotiations, about 20 strategy development projects, about 20 evaluations and reviews, distributed over six countries.