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Centre for Policy Development attacks budget cuts to 'efficient' public service

Date

Ross Peake

While the federal public service is relatively efficient, it must become more innovative and develop an experimental approach, according to a report to be published on Thursday.

Along with advice to work smarter, the report criticises the budget for attempting to minimise resources without a serious examination of how best to achieve aims with fewer resources.

“The assumption appears to be that smaller government is necessarily more efficient,” the report by the Centre for Policy Development says.

The report concludes the way public service efficiency is discussed “damages the country”.

Misuse of the term justifies policy approaches that can drive inefficiency and waste, and distracts from good ideas for genuine efficiency improvements, it says.

The value delivered by some agencies hit by cuts is overlooked, to bring “leaner, business-like ways of operating”.

Raising the efficiency dividend to 2.5 per cent will compound this, resulting in across-the-board cuts to services “regardless of their utility”.

Report author Christopher Stone said: “The budget assumes a smaller government is necessarily more efficient.

“It lacks a serious examination of how best to achieve aims with minimal resources and instead simply attempts to minimise resources.”

Public service goals are more complex than the private sector profit drive, and this special context requires an emphasis on professional accountability.

“Efficiency in public services is critical if we want our tax dollars well spent and our government to achieve all of what we as a country think that it should,” the report says.

“Unfortunately, public and political debates on this topic are too often mired in misunderstandings. The evidence on efficiency is misrepresented or ignored; the very meaning of the term is twisted to suit other agendas or evidence-free arguments.”

Terry Moran, former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and now president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, says in a foreword to the report that the cost of all three levels of government in Australia is among the lowest in the developed world.

“However, none of this is to argue that we should be blind to the potential for improvements in the way public administration functions,” he says.

“This report highlights a number of examples where the implementation of one-dimensional ideas about efficiency have come at a very substantial cost but across all three definitions of ‘efficiency’ there is room for us to do better.

“We know that increased risk-aversion leads to more complex and prescriptive process and regulations.

“It is also clear that poor public sector performance management systems end up rewarding relatively unproductive work.

“There are also a number of examples where a breakdown in the relationship between ministers' offices and senior public sector staff has resulted in costly public policy mistakes.

“Much of this is the result of a complex interplay between political leaders, the community and public administrators, with each group perceiving their actions to be reasonable.

“If the community refuses to accept any risk, then politicians will respond to those demands.

“If public sector performance management becomes overly engineered and prescriptive, then public servants will focus on outputs and not outcomes.

“If ministers are encouraged to stop seeing their departments as a source of impartial advice, they will stop listening to it.”

The report says the public service can become more innovative through:

  • The creation of cross-agency teams to help drive innovative approaches to services.
  • Initiatives by agency heads to facilitate bottom-up innovations (such as temporarily implementing more permissive standards to create a window for experimentation with new techniques by front-line workers).
  • Taking a low-risk approach to pilot programs (such as running multiple simultaneous pilots to reduce the political risk of a pilot being seen as "failed").
  • Awards and other schemes to give recognition to innovative public servants.
  • An innovation investment fund to provide a public sector equivalent to venture capital, combined with mechanisms to capture and share information on implementing innovations.

The report recommends the Australian Public Service should: focus on organisational outcomes, with clearly defined priorities informed by a national planning process; improve accountability through closer engagement with service users and front-line public servants; reinforce efforts to increase trust between management and staff; and work for more constructive relationships between ministers and public servants.

The report was funded by the Community and Public Sector Union, the Becher Foundation and Slater & Gordon.

25 comments so far

  • Its a sad state of affairs at Agency level. The head honcho's say to staff we want to innovate-share your ideas. Ideas are forthcoming, but are fended off by the standard response-sorry we can't don't have the money to implement that.

    Commenter
    Johnny B
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    June 26, 2014, 12:20AM
    • I do not expect a report funded by the CPSU to reach any other conclusions. Did they benchmark against NZ? Canberra is afflicted with far too many layers of politically attuned SES officers that strangle innovation while using up resources in turf wars. The inability of the public service to achieve efficiencies by itself is why both Labor and Coalition Governments have used the crude efficiency dividend mechanism. It is noteworthy that the largest such efficiency dividend took place under Penny Wong and Labor so the current outcry is quite hypocritical.

      Commenter
      Public Servant
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      June 26, 2014, 10:23AM
    • I thought that the outcry was about that fact the effientcy dividends cumlatively have run their courses. Most departments are on ther 3rd or 4th round of VR's. Not the size it's more that they have been in continously for so long. That there isn't really much left to cut without cutting programs.

      Most international reports place Australia's public service highly in all measures so it's not that great a leap for the CPSU to find the same.

      Commenter
      uhhh
      Location
      somewhere
      Date and time
      June 26, 2014, 11:19AM
    • Johny b I have come up against this time and time again at a local level, then some wanker in Melbum who cant see the grass for the trees spends money on some crap idea. Sick of it! But when the Vic Lib Govt got rid of thousands of public servants to save itself a billion $ supposedly, it then went out and spent $985 million on hiring people to do the same work, only they werent efficient, they had no tenure of employement, and they werent paid the same rates! And we arent paid well now! The Vic public service is very efficient and has been for years, the only difference between now and when Labor were in power is members taking more stress leave! Cant wait to get the adults back in charge in Vic in November.

      Commenter
      stuff me
      Location
      The wild west
      Date and time
      June 30, 2014, 3:47PM
  • Why are we treating Govt departments as a business. We are to provide a service to the community. Not here to make a profit. Yes we have to be accountable when spending our budget.

    Commenter
    Hardarse
    Date and time
    June 26, 2014, 8:31AM
    • Innovation is often hindered by teh tools we use, we are still using XP!

      Commenter
      Jane2
      Date and time
      June 26, 2014, 8:42AM
      • As an IT professional working for the Federal Government I can confidently say you are lying.

        Commenter
        AdrianL
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        June 26, 2014, 10:35AM
      • "As an IT professional working for the Federal Government I can confidently say you are lying"
        Unless you are somehow working for every single Federal Government department simultaneously, you can't say anything confidently. Never mind XP, there are departments still operating on 20 year old IBM desktops.

        Commenter
        Markus
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        June 26, 2014, 11:13AM
      • Actually yes I do. and yes you are lying. I am also a union delegate and labor supporter but I wont stand for out and out lies.

        Commenter
        AdrianL
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        June 26, 2014, 11:48AM
      • Yes, we are still using xp in many areas in Vic. Under Labor we were due to get a refresh 3 years ago, under the libs we may get one before the election in November. And as the Libs have suddenly found billions of dollars I am guessing that may happen! Never mind, most public servants wouldnt vote Lib in a fit after they were lied to in 2010. Any more than public servants federally they are likely to vote for the libs in 2016.

        Commenter
        stuff mestuff me
        Location
        The wild west
        Date and time
        June 30, 2014, 3:52PM

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