Fads, cliches and jargon won't save the service

Fads, cliches and jargon won't save the service

Heather Smith proposes change for change’s sake and ignores past lessons.

A recent speech by Heather Smith, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, on "doing policy differently" (an edited version of which was in last month's Informant) is interesting though unhelpful. And its comprehension is impeded by a richness of cliches impressive even by modern standards – "expanding policy toolkit", "multiple cross-cutting conversations", "business model needs urgent disrupting", "the borderless world in which we exist", "open dialogue and user-design approaches", "being connectors, interpreters and navigators", "strategic coordinator of policy inputs", "be prepared to fail, fail fast, pivot and try different approaches", and so on and on.

Lesson: those wanting to improve Australian public administration must speak and write clearly.

CSIRO chairman David Thodey, Industry Department head Heather Smith, top NSW public servant Blair Comley and DFAT secretary Frances Adamson at the recent policy forum.

CSIRO chairman David Thodey, Industry Department head Heather Smith, top NSW public servant Blair Comley and DFAT secretary Frances Adamson at the recent policy forum.Credit:IPAA (ACT division)

After surveying views of sundry senior officials and others on the condition of the public service, Smith says "the three most fundamental forces shaping Australia's future" are China's role in the international system, technological change and its effect on work, and ambivalence about institutions and reduced support for openness to the world. That probably makes four but, even then, this list is too restricted.

Sure, China's evolution is significant. But as Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson said recently, its progress "is part of a much broader story that started with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong ... and has since played out across North, South and South-East Asia". She also reminded us of the "profound implications for Australia" of the rise of Indonesia, and the United States and Europe will continue to be hugely important.


Adamson is also more optimistic than Smith about Australian institutions and their openness. Last year, for example, she said "Australia has the strength to shape its own future. Our outlook is global. Our democracy is strong. Our society is open, diverse and resilient ... We live in the most economically dynamic region of the world. We have strong partnerships in our region and beyond."

These things are matters of judgment, however Smith should be careful not to exaggerate China as a force in Australia's future or to underestimate the character of Australia's institutions and the country's "openness to the world". Further, her claim that the world now has "unparalleled opportunities delivered by technological change" doesn't fit well with the likelihood that the rate of technological change is slowing and becoming more narrowly based. The world's "unparalleled" period of technological change ran from about 1870 to 1970 and, for the moment, it's on the wane.

Industry Department chief Heather Smith.

Industry Department chief Heather Smith.Credit:IPAA (ACT division)

Whatever is to be made of the major forces affecting Australia, Smith asserts that "the [Australian Public Service] today is neither structurally configured, not culturally aligned to help government navigate" them. "There is no sense of a burning platform. No sense of strategic preparation for the decades ahead."

While scant evidence is presented to support these grave indictments, Smith is in the system and her views have force on that account. If they're only half true, they are an awful reflection on ministers and senior officials, now and in the recent past.

So what would Smith like to do to counter the malaise?

First, she ponders the possibility of "super portfolios" as a "new way of working for the APS" that would allow a "more joined-up corporatist approach to delivering for the citizen". There's no reflection on the fact that the days of the true super portfolios (the Postmaster-General's Department and the Defence Department until the 1990s) have long gone. Nor is there a sense that Smith has reflected on the experience of the vast amalgamation of departments in the 1980s or read former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Codd's excellent paper on that exercise (see the Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration's May 1988 issue).

Smith asks if there should be "fewer departments but with a common strategic plan and organisation strategy", whatever that might mean; she provides no cogent answers. As she doesn't draw on commonly accepted principles of machinery of government, such as Codd outlines, her discussion runs into the mud and ends with questions, not answers, and without suggestions about what functions might profitably be amalgamated. The flavour is: when in doubt, reorganise.

Second, Smith places great faith in more staff mobility in the public service and interchanges with other employers. "How can we be confident," she asks, "that we are providing well-informed and integrated advice to government ... if the bulk of the APS has only worked in one department?" This, she asserts, "is not a sustainable model for the future".


Such simplistic analysis provides no basis for personnel policy. It doesn't matter if staff spend a lifetime in the Tax Office, Centrelink, customs, naval stores and like functions that make up the bulk of the public service. What may matter is the extent to which the relatively small number of policy personnel can move between agencies whose functions are related, a calculation Smith doesn't seem to have made. Further, she doesn't pause to reflect on what might be inhibiting staff mobility where it counts; that is, the hopelessly Balkanised pay and conditions and the associated debased classification standards that have come with devolved agency industrial relations bargaining.

Third, Smith wants a "radical transformation of how we engage with the community we serve". Here, she serves up a mish-mash of things like "open dialogue and user design", getting to better know the community, public servants playing a "broker" role and, God help us, "citizen juries". Her suggestions lack coherence while the crucial of role of ministers in the transmission of community sentiment is overlooked. Smith wonders if "bringing in outside expertise and insights to our deliberations to give us richer understandings of issues and options", notwithstanding misgivings that the generous use of consultants for this very purpose may have degraded long-term policy capacity within departments.


And that's about it. It would be nice to see a "burning platform" for public service improvement in Smith's speech; it's not there. Moreover, there are many things relevant to policy development and advising that Smith neglects. For example:

  • The changed nature of relations between ministers and officials, including the effects of ministerial staff and fixed-period appointments for secretaries.
  • The reduced unity of structure, role and conditions of the senior executive service and the consequent possible effects on policy coordination.
  • Means for developing a greater esprit de corps among senior staff and ways of improving trust and confidence in relations with ministers.
  • The placement of policy functions in departments versus the use of independent statutory authorities to provide public policy advice.
  • The effects of the greater use of consultants and the like to do standard public service work, and what needs to be done to protect effectiveness via merit staffing that avoids nepotism and corruption.
  • The effects of the long-standing practice of arbitrary efficiency dividends.
  • The distractions and dubious benefits of accrual accounting.
  • The structure of central management within the public service and its power to organise public service-wide improvements.

Towards the end of Smith's speech, she says: "If the government agrees to the Innovation and Science Australia 2030 report recommendation to review the APS, it would be the first root-and-branch look at the APS since the mid-1970s to examine whether we are fit for purpose."

It probably doesn't matter much that that's merely not true. Nor does it matter that Innovation and Science Australia's recommendation is based on grossly distorted, misleading and meaningless assertions. For example, Innovation and Science Australia (a statutory board) reckons the public sector hasn't seen the same "disruption as the private sector" and that the APS's structure "reflects the 1980s, not the 2000s". Horse shit rarely comes so unrefined.

Moreover, the nature of the review suggested by the board (of which Smith is a member) is absurd and does not add up to a "root-and-branch" examination. It says the review should aim to enable "a greater role and capability for innovation in policy development, implementation and service delivery". That is, the board is trying to promote the technique of innovation (that is, to bring in new methods for their own sake), which of itself is no guarantee of good policy and administration and, in many instances, may be inimical to it. Indeed, the profusion of "innovation labs", with which Smith seems pleased, is a depressing omen.

The public service is not going to be lifted up on the back of cliches, management fads, change for change's sake and a calculated ignorance of the lessons of experience. Throughout its history, much of the impetus for improvement has come from within the public service, especially from the 1960s to the '80s. At present, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this capacity for self-generated reform is on the ebb.

If so, an independent, external review should be pursued and it should be kept far away from the shadowy secretaries' APS reform committee, because if Smith's indictments are close to the mark, it has been snoozing at the wheel. That is, it might be part of the problem. And any review certainly should be kept well clear of the kooky, narrow-minded and useless terms of reference proposed by the hapless boffins at Innovation and Science Australia.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. pdg@home.netsepeed.com.au