We all know the wheels of government turn slowly. What's surprising is just how slowly – even when they're supposedly travelling at the speed of broadband internet.
This week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government was "aiming to increase the penetration of telework in the Australian Public Service to 12 per cent" by 2020. So about one in eight public servants will work from home. It seems a worthy goal and many staff will no doubt jump at the opportunity. But it's taken an awfully long time to reach this point. It's worth taking a look back and asking what went wrong.
To start with, Gillard's "launch" of the 12 per cent goal, made at the start of National Telework Week on Monday, was no such thing. The government unveiled the aim at least as far back as April.
Someone, however, must had decided that not enough people noticed. Luckily, a political "announceable" doesn't need to be new; it just needs to seem new. Back in September, the Broadband Department paid a publicist $110,000 to help spruik this week's events and speeches. Voila: people and the media finally heard about the "new" goal, and telecommuting was in the news all week.
Now, I'm not knocking the spending on publicity: it clearly worked. I'm concerned about the long history of inaction that preceded this latest announcement. Gillard said this week that the 12 per cent goal was "going to take some time and it's going to take some thinking".
"Some time"? You'd better believe it. More than 7½ years ago, then federal communications minister Helen Coonan set up a telework taskforce, promising more flexible work arrangements and a "better work-life balance". The Australian Telework Advisory Committee spent almost a year preparing its findings. Its report included six sets of recommendations, including one devoted to promoting, supporting and monitoring telework in the APS.
What happened as a result? Extraordinarily little. The government never responded formally to the report, though the Broadband Department helpfully told me this week that it did act on one of the recommendations: it set up a telework information website about 1½ years later. And, almost four years after the taskforce reported, the Finance Department published a "Teleworking policy for ICT staff"; alas, the promised policy for the rest of the APS workforce was forgotten.
So how far has the bureaucracy come in those 7½ years? Gillard's office said this week that about 4 per cent of the APS teleworked regularly. Yet, as far back as 2005, a Sensis study concluded that just under 4 per cent of Australian workers teleworked not just regularly but every day of the week. The lack of progress within the APS since then is astonishing. So much for Coonan's taskforce and the toil of the hundreds of people who contributed to it in some way.
I don't blame ministers; they can't be expected to be tackle what is essentially an administrative problem. Indeed, this week, Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy spoke of one of the biggest barriers to flexible work practices. Despite mounting evidence of the productivity benefits of teleworking, Conroy said "the attitude of employers and middle managers" was a major hindrance. "While these attitudes are changing, there remain many employers who regard telework with doubt and suspicion. To the uninitiated, it might seem that working from home is not really working at all."
I suspect this is very pertinent to the APS. I hear often of managers who refuse to allow staff to work from home, citing their inability to monitor performance. (If a manager can't assess an employee's performance by their work, they're probably unfit to manage.)
Another challenge involves protecting secret information shared via remote networks. Yet I'm sure this would be far less of a problem if fewer public servants indulged in the intellectual onanism that is overclassifying documents beyond their colleagues' security level, merely because they can.
Ultimately, Gillard's pronouncements about goals for 2020 – more than three elections hence – are meaningless. What public service managers do now, however, matters a great deal. Let's not wait another 7½ years.
This reporter is on Twitter: @MarkusMannheim