David Thodey and his fellow panellists on the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service have had an incredibly difficult job. Tasked with delivering a "once in a generation" review, their challenge is now to sell big ideas to a government with limited appetite for reform and an aversion to investing in the public service.
The only way they will achieve this is if the Morrison government recognises the value of the APS and why the public service matters to the lives of Australians.
As far as this government is concerned, it doesn't seem to matter who does the work - the APS or the private sector.
Over the past six years, the Liberal/National government has steadily eroded the capability of the APS with protracted industrial disputes, job cuts and staffing caps while at the same time spending on contractors and consultants appears to have tripled. Instead of trusting public servants, they have looked to consultancies, think-tanks and lobbyists to help them make the big decisions about the future of the country.
The truth is that it does matter who performs the work of government. The purpose of the APS is not to get out of the way - it is to provide a stable source of expertise that survives the revolving door of political leadership and acts solely in the national interest.
A strong, responsive and apolitical public service can challenge governments to be better, and to think about the longer term implications of decisions forged in the bear-pit of federal politics. An accountable, transparent and effective public service can deliver services and programs in ways that puts people before profit, and manages the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
The more we erode the capability of the APS, the more difficult this purpose becomes to realise. Under the shackles of staffing caps, agencies rely on consultancies to do some of the most challenging work. Reliance on consultants for extra resources quickly turns into reliance for their capability as public servants lose good opportunities to build experience.
This self-reinforcing cycle is convenient for a government intent on undermining the APS, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister's recent intervention in the Independent Review process. By steering Thodey to focus on performance standards, the Prime Minister seeks to pin the blame for any problems on the APS itself, rather than any lack of attention or investment in capability from his government.
For the APS to implement genuine reform it must have the right leadership, culture and long-term thinking. One of the first challenges in a serious APS reform environment is to reverse the cycle of eroding capability of, and trust in, the APS. A starting point here has to be the way government work gets commissioned to the private sector.
Consulting firms have an important contribution to make where they offer specialist capability or temporary surge capacity. However, there needs to be better approach to deciding when it is appropriate to engage consultants and how to use them to build the enduring capability of the APS.
Another significant challenge is how the APS rises up to and embraces the potential that technology presents for delivering government services in an efficient, effective and fair way. Increasingly "customers" of government services expect to be able to interact with government on their own terms and at a time of their choosing. There are huge productivity gains possible for government if they can get this right and conversely big risks and costs if they get it wrong. Strong leadership and whole of APS investment is desperately needed here.
Hope for a stronger and more capable APS rests with the work of David Thodey and his review team, the potential for the government to change its course, and the advocacy of those of us outside the tent to marshal a case for change.
The immediate challenge for the Prime Minister is whether he is able to stop wagging the finger at the APS and instead articulate a reform agenda which clearly articulates why a strong, apolitical and trusted public service is critical to our future as a nation. The cost of doing nothing or of continuing on our current trajectory would be too high a price to pay for the Australian community.
- Senator Katy Gallagher is Labor's spokeswoman for the public service.