Public service needs 'Hollywood model' of work, says former PM&C secretary Peter Shergold

Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Peter Shergold said the Australian public service needed the "Hollywood model" of employment. 

Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Peter Shergold.
Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Peter Shergold. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Professor Shergold outlined his frustrations with the federal bureaucracy while detailing the best way forward for public administration at a speech in Canberra on Friday.

While foreshadowing the findings of his soon-to-be-released Learning from Failure report he said the public service should increasingly pull together teams of people to get jobs done.

"Bring them in, let them work, let them go," he said. 

"All the work the public service does lends itself to that. 


"Here's a particular project we want to do - bring people in interested in that. 

"They don't give a rat's about the public service, in fact they don't want to be a public servant. But that particular project, if presented as working in the national interest, does attract people." 

He said the public service should become more flexible by learning to measure the performance of contractors and then "getting out of the way".

Contracts were often bogged down with so much "stupid detail" they cramped the ability of private companies to be creative and do the job better.

As secretary of the Employment Department when Job Network was introduced he thought the variety of contractors chosen - the Salvation Army, Work Directions and Maximus - would each operate differently and provide choice for consumers.

"Instead they all operated remarkably similarly," he said.

"Why? Because of the public service. Because the public service have now got 360 pages of guidelines for job providers about how they operate.

"Why bother to outsource the delivery to a range of different organisations if you insist they all behave like mini government agencies? 

"It's a pointless exercise."

The central message of his speech was a call for adaptive government and as part of this he hoped public servants would allow more contractors to co-design ways services could be delivered.

Professor Shergold said he had seen great work toward this in the public service so far and in areas such as consumer directed care in disability and aged care, the tailoring of services to the communities they serve and the use of social media to engage citizens.

The problem was these great examples were often found at the margins of agencies and departments and were not influencing the bureaucracy's heartland.

"I'm not saying any of these are silver bullets," he added.

He did not believe the public service was worse than private enterprise and that senior public servants were inferior to business executives.

"I could find examples in the private sector which would match pretty well the abject failure of the home insulation program," Professor Shergold said. 

He said the public service should experiment more and the bureaucracy often misused the word "pilot".

A pilot was supposed to be a genuine test of a program trialled in a small way and, if successful, increased in size.

Professor Shergold said public servants regularly tagged as "pilots" projects which had received little funding because they had "foundered on the rocks on Finance and Treasury".

Professor Shergold, chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and NSW Coordinator-General for Refugee Resettlement, spoke at a breakfast organised by Silverstone Edge and will donate his fee to his university's scholarship program.