The Coalition's narrow election win last month signifies a few good things for the Australian Public Service, some not so good things and things that are for the moment inscrutable.
It could be a good thing, for example, that Scott Morrison has allocated to himself responsibility for the public service and selected to help him Health Minister Greg Hunt, who, whatever his abilities, seems to be an active fellow.
As I have harped all too frequently, improvements in the workings of government administration rely critically on the interest and involvement of ministers, especially the Prime Minister. If he intends to insinuate himself into such matters, that could be a step in the right direction and perhaps a harbinger that the government will deal seriously with the recommendations of the Thodey review of the APS, which are due before the end of this month.
The decision to have a minister for government services (Stuart Robert) may also be positive, as may be the intention to set up a new "agency" to, in the deathless prose of modern management, "drive greater efficiencies and integration of government service delivery and making the best use of technology and digital applications". This new agency, to be known as Services Australia, has snared "part 15" of the Administrative Arrangements Order, and is possibly the first organisation not designated as a "department" to be so identified.
The tentacles of "innovation" have found their ways into the AAO: nothing can escape them, it would seem.
Whatever, the new agency, is promoted as a creature along the lines of Service NSW, whose "mission is to make it easier for the residents ... to do business with government". Its website says: "As well as guidance on how to complete specific transactions, we provide general information on a variety of subjects, such as local councils, NSW legislation, planning information, state electorates, members of Parliament, energy rebates and much more." It also provides help on a range of Commonwealth functions, including income tax, Centrelink, passports and visas.
Services Australia - what a neat irony that an organisation to help citizens better deal with government should be given a name that provides absolutely no idea about what it does or what level of government it is attached to. Let's hope the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet can soon be redesignated "Prime Minister Australia".
Services Australia - what a neat irony that an organisation to help citizens better deal with government should be given a name that provides absolutely no idea about what it does or what level of government it is attached to.
More constructively, Morrison, Hunt, Robert and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, with his interest in administration-wide matters, could think about better coordinating their related responsibilities via a government administration sub-committee of cabinet that could, among other things, tuck the implementation of any worthwhile Thodey review recommendations under its wings.
Such a committee could also try to define the Prime Minister's generalised promises about "congestion-busting" and the related inhibitor of "red tape". Those with memories for the medium term might recall that, in its early days, the Abbott government declared a "war" on such "tape", to which then Finance Department secretary attached the nauseating rubric "rid the red", thus condemning the enterprise to failure, so it seemed.
Of course congestion in both policy development and service delivery should be avoided where possible. A trick, however, is to keep in mind that sound policy development is not like making instant coffee. Properly following due process takes time and, in the rush to destroy "red tape", it's too easily forgotten that regulating many activities in the public interest is a critical government function.
It's also worth bearing in mind that congestion in government services can arise from under-resourcing and that, as with roads, "busting" it can require more money.
End the dividend
And so we get to the government's decision to run an efficiency dividend of 2 per cent on agency running costs for the next two years, with a taper down to 1 per cent in 2022, if with exceptions for the National Disability Insurance Agency, smaller organisations and a few others.
This continued salami-slicing of running costs has nothing to do with efficiency and, in many instances, it's likely to cause inefficiencies and congestion. The Thodey review should recommend its abolition.
Cormann and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg say that the beauty [sic] of the dividend is that the government can leave it to department heads to judge where the cuts are made. That's not beautiful. It's an ugly example of ministerial gutlessness; an unwillingness to meet their fundamental responsibilities to determine what things the government will do and at what standards.
Ministers should not leave the dirty work of chopping functions and lowering standards of service to public servants. Imagine how long the Frydenburg-Cormann "beauty" would last if a secretary had the fortitude to say that one of the "efficiency" sacrifices her department intended was a reduction in the level of support to ministers.
Who'll pay for higher standards?
A couple of days before he announced his new ministry, Morrison gathered heads of departments for a pep talk. He said he "deeply respects ... the role of the public service in delivering on the agenda of the government". He wanted "frank and fearless advice" but added that "the thing we depend on that you're professionally responsible for is the delivery of ... services". Some saw this as playing down policy-advising, though that requires a little reading between the lines. As Donald Trump is fond of saying: "Let's see."
More specifically, Morrison said "there will be very clear targets about performance levels that we'll expect from the delivery of public service". That could be good. Ministers should decide on the standards of service they require; too often, they don't.
Moreover, the setting and communicating of standards should force a consideration of the resources needed to achieve them. That, too, doesn't happen often enough. Target-setting should also help in the more systematic evaluation of government programs, something often left vague because of apprehensions about the political strife that can result if targets are not met. Importantly, these standards should be made public and they should include, at the outset, officials' comments about the possible effects of resource constraints on their achievement.
Decongesting (to Armidale)
On a particular matter, a returned Coalition government with an undiminished National Party keeps alive the so-called "decentralisation" administration from Canberra and the capital cities to what once was known as "rural and regional Australia". The primary point, rarely given due prominence, is that government organisations should be located where they can best do their jobs. If they're not, the very congestion that Morrison wants to "bust" will not be far away. Remember, Barnaby Joyce's inspired, in a manner of speaking, move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale in his electorate caused all sorts of congestion in that organisation and may continue to do so for some time.
The Coalition's new ministry, however, may mean that, for better or worse, Joyce will no longer have so strong an influence on the location of government organisations. Sadly, he has been stripped of his responsibilities as the "drought envoy", a decision he was notified of via Twitter. "I would have expected a phone call," he reportedly said, "but I didn't [get one] and that's life." That's hardly a proper way to treat a personage who once held the lofty office of deputy prime minister and who was regarded as one of the greatest retail (or was it wholesale?) politicians in the country. It's to be hoped Joyce will rise again, as only fools should imagine he doesn't have a lot to offer, apparently.
The lost 200
And so into this semi-fresh polity will come the report of the Thodey review. Since its interim report in March, the review has published a document titled In Conversation with Public Service Leaders. "In April," the document says, "we joined the heads and deputies of Australian public service organisations - the APS 200 - to talk about change and the future of our service."
The APS 200 is a rather shadowy body, described by the review as "a formidable group of the most senior leaders serving the country". It no doubt has done lots of good things, although a search for exactly what leads to the frustrating conclusion that it may have been hiding its light under a bushel. Anyway, the review has now brought into the open the thinking of the 200 in the form of a summary of its April "conversation", which presumably captures is essence. Let's have a look.
First up comes Martin Parkinson, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, who says: "To me, it's really simple ... I want [public servants] to be bound together by this one idea that we are the APS and we work for Australia." That's simple enough, although he adds "we need to operate fundamentally differently" and take a "new approach" in dealing with those "outside the service".
Kerri Hartland, at the time the Jobs Department secretary, reckons "we have the opportunity to stop being the bouncer and instead be the DJ" and that "we are able to use this review to hold a mirror up to ourselves". Take as much time as you need to let that sink in, if it can.
Nadine Williams, an Education Department deputy secretary, says: "What I found really interesting was the level of energy in the room and I guess how engaged and willing people are to think about what the future of the APS should look like." What that "future" might be is unrecorded.
Melinda Smith, the Tax Office's chief service officer, says: "The legacy that any leader would want to leave is one where you can honestly say you helped the organisation take that step forward." Fair enough, but what step forward?
Parkinson has the final word, saying "if you feel you need authority from me or the secretaries board, never ask that question again because, I'm telling you, you've got it." It's hard to imagine carte blanche coming in a more open-ended form, or might that be a tautology?
So what does this tell us about the APS 200's conception of "change and the future of our service"? If the review's summary is a fair reflection of the group's proceedings in April, the short answer is not a lot. Their recorded comments are abstract and obscure. If the service needs "to operate fundamentally differently", why and in what ways? If leaders are to help the take "step forward", how will that be done and what direction will it take? When these leaders "hold a mirror up" to themselves, what do they see and what would they keep and what would they change? For answers to these questions, more will be need than "energy in the room".
Thodey's last word
If improvements are to be made to the APS, operational procedures, organisation structures and people will all likely need to change. There's no sense of that in the record of the 200's discussions. Abstract sentiments, no matter how admirable, are one thing but they will not count for much without a solid list of specific, substantive things that should be done.
In the week or so it has left to finalise its report, it's to be hoped the Thodey review can effectively come to grips with the concrete, bring home the bacon and give the Morrison government a good serving of practical suggestions on which to chew.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org