The Australian Public Service is unready to help governments as they grapple with eroding support for openness with foreign countries, ambivalence about institutions, and China's role in the world order, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science boss Heather Smith says.
Dr Smith made an urgent call for radical change to the bureaucracy at a conference of public servants in Canberra on Thursday last week, rejecting arguments for "incremental" reform and pushing for a transformation in the way agencies work together and speak to citizens.
In a speech commended by current and former public service leaders, she said the APS needed to change if it was to help steer the government as challenges emerged.
"There's no sense of a burning platform, no sense of strategic preparation for the decades ahead," Dr Smith said.
"The domestic and global environment has changed so much that we do need to do policy differently if we are to adapt and succeed in a new environment, or more bluntly, the way that we are configured to make and deliver policy is no longer fit for purpose."
While the APS was not standing still, and wasn't broken, the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index 2017 suggested Australia was no longer best in its policy making and service delivery, she said.
Describing arguments that liberal democracies face the threat of collapse from rising nationalism, adverse impacts of globalisation, the emergence of "strongman" leaders, an eroding middle class and income inequality, Dr Smith warned that beliefs the world would remain open could turn out to be "a dangerous conceit given what appears to be occurring."
"We need to hope for the best, and we need to prepare for the worst," she told the Institute of Public Administration Australia forum.
"Whether you subscribe to the view that liberal democracy is at an inflection point or not, whether globalisation and openness can be sustained, or whether technology will radically recast the future of work, the question for us in the APS remains the same.
"How prepared are we to advise government on how to address these challenges, and how to deal with the anxiety being experienced by our fellow Australians?"
Three factors shaped Australia's future, including China's role in the international system, technology and its impact on the future of work, and a "dangerous ambivalence towards the two features that underpin our democracy: respect for and investment in institutions that support our prosperity, and the erosion of support for openness to the world", Dr Smith said.
"As I see it, the APS today is neither structurally configured nor culturally aligned to help government navigate these and other policy challenges, nor to capitalise on the opportunities when they arise."
The emergence of super portfolios including Home Affairs, and Jobs and Innovation, had "raised the bar", making agencies rethink how they did business as they faced policy challenges that needed team-based solutions rather than the public service's vertical hierarchies, Dr Smith said.
"Whether the new super portfolio arrangements are part of a broader paradigm change in the APS remains to be seen. Time will tell," she said.
"But this could be the new way for working for the APS. Super portfolios, fewer departments, and a more joined-up corporatist approach to delivering for the citizen."
She called for greater movement among public servants between agencies, lamenting figures showing only 2 per cent of APS staff had shifted departments last year and 72 per cent had only ever worked in one agency - a model Dr Smith said was unsustainable.
The public service's thinking needed to be less split between domestic and international interests, and reflect more today's "borderless world".
"With the policy issues we deal with increasingly integrated and multidisciplinary in nature, greater mobility within the APS will be essential for us in fulfilling our role," Dr Smith said.
"In fact, how can we be confident that we are providing well-informed and integrated advice to government on Australia's place in the world, or the transformation of the Australian economy, if the bulk of the APS has only worked in one department?"
Dr Smith also questioned how much the APS had embraced new ways of communicating with citizens, and raised the option of citizen juries.
"My sense is that our practical experience with how to engage with the community beyond traditional information sharing and consultation is rather patchy."
A review of the public service, recommended in the Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation report last year, could provide the platform for change needed in the bureaucracy, Dr Smith said.
"We are making progress, becoming more savvy in how we use digital technology, and making greater use of data to ensure we have the right policies and programmes supporting the right people at the right time.
"But we have got to get even better, and we have to do it pretty quickly."
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