The public service shake-up is no surprise. The Prime Minister since the election has signalled his dissatisfaction with the public service. Now he's reorganising it.
Changes to the machinery of government are required from time to time, as community expectations of government shift. Changes were frequent up to 1987, when the Hawke government reduced the number of departments from 28 to 18. Larger departments are better able to accommodate shifts in circumstances and can - if ministers are so minded - deliver efficiencies. Bringing like functions together can (but does not always) mean better co-ordination.
Today's announced change is not as dramatic, cutting the number of departments from 18 to 14, but is still significant consolidation. Based on the 1987 experience, results will depend on whether ministers and departmental secretaries want it to work.
Where ministers want half a department working exclusively to them, it is hard to realise benefits from mergers. The 1987 mergers that worked best involved shifting staff. For example, in the then-new primary industries and energy department, many energy branch managers moved to agriculture branches, and vice versa. It was disruptive for a few months - and ministers had to get used to dealing with unfamiliar public servants - but it resulted in better integration.
There may be net staff cuts in some merged departments. The Industry and Infrastructure portfolios both have numerous small programs or policy development activities of doubtful effectiveness. Moving Environment into the Agriculture portfolio could see National Party ministers taking opportunities to reduce environmental programs. However, the primary objective of a machinery of government change is better program delivery, not savings.
The government has signalled concerns about the public service's ability to implement its policies. It's not ideological. Problems across the public service affect Australians from all walks of life. Whether it's the slow and bureaucratic NDIS rollout, the robodebt saga, Centrelink call waiting times, a failing Murray-Darling Basin plan, incoherence in energy policy or a myriad of others, many voters are unhappy with public services.
While some of these problems result from staff cuts, others reflect a decline in the public service's inherent delivery capabilities. This has not happened overnight. Its origins include large budget surpluses in the latter years of the Howard government, which encouraged departments to substitute "throw money" for hard work; the dysfunction of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years; and excessive risk-aversion by ministers and their offices in the face of the 24-hour media cycle and adversarial politics.
Whatever the diagnosis, it is clear that the government needs to fix poor delivery of public services. The Prime Minister has made it a priority. Machinery of government changes announced today are thus likely to be only a first instalment. The government almost certainly will take the opportunity provided by the imminent release of the Thodey public service report to announce further reforms to improve implementation capacity.
- Stephen Bartos is a director of Pegasus Economics and a former Finance Department deputy secretary.