Once again program evaluation is a priority for the Australian Public Service, but can those at the top embed it this time?
In his December 2019 response to the Thodey review of the Australian Public Service, the Prime Minister committed the government to "building the capability of the APS to evaluate how policies and programs are going and embedding evaluation into everyday practice of the APS".
My recent research found systemic differences in the APS between "implemented" and "embedded", because of four factors: initiating agents; devolution to secretaries; extended time; geography.
In APS reforms over the past 40 years, program evaluation has a history of being implemented but not becoming embedded. This article sets out reasons why and suggests alternative methods to achieve the prime minister's commitment - once and for all.
The APS is required to be "efficient and effective in serving the government, the parliament and the Australian public" under its Public Service Act. Demonstrating that has concerned governments and APS management over decades, but it has been more a requirement than an embedded practice.
When I was a member of the APS, many management reforms were started and some did become embedded, like the Senior Executive Service (SES) and accrual accounting.
However, my research looked at the reform of program evaluation. Why evaluation was once required of all APS departments during the Managing for Results (MfR) era (1980s-1996) and then died away, but began reappearing in 2013 through the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act (PGPA) and its requirements for annual performance statements.
When considered over nearly 40 years, there were similar and repeated objectives: focusing on program outcomes and showing results through evaluation. This performance reform cycle contained many similarities.
A common factor was they were started by particular governments and their senior secretaries such as Prime Minister's and Finance departments.
Equally changes in those same significant change agents led to evaluation reforms lapsing, as shown in the following two examples. The Hawke government was a keen implementer of the MfR reforms between the 1980s and 1996, but afterwards the Howard government dropped the requirement for Portfolio Evaluation Plans.
In 2010, the Rudd government introduced "Ahead of the Game", but this did not proceed under his successor. One of my interviewees was explicit: "The reason we stopped using the phrase 'Ahead of the Game' is because the government of the day didn't use the phrase."
When those senior initiators of management change moved on, this resulted in APS managers losing interest in maintaining that reform. A further key factor was a result of that earlier MfR: the devolution of centralised management responsibilities to individual secretaries.
That devolution lessened the practical impact of central reforms on the "One APS" through secretaries' individual discretion.
Despite the earlier MfR findings, there was also only limited awareness of middle managers as the consolidators of change in the regions.
The span of effective management impact does not always stretch that far nationally, but can be found in both the PGPA Act and recent US legislation.
TheFoundationsfor Evidence-Based Policymaking Act 2018requires every US agency to have both a senior evaluation officer and an evaluation plan, in addition to a performance plan. By contrast, Australia's PGPA Act only requires an annual performance statement, although Section 38does mean that "the accountable authority of a Commonwealth entity must measure and assess the performance of the entity in achieving its purposes". This suggests formal evaluation is a desirable APS capability and is relevant to a current review by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee of: The current capability of the Australian Public Service.
However,few of the submissions have identified the importance of APS evaluation skills and practice. One adjunct to these may be an Independent Evaluator-General long advocated by Nicholas Gruen, where professional and independent evaluators advise APS staff on conducting agency evaluations. This takes evaluation out of the much-criticised short-term daily issues occupying the priorities of APS management.
Resistance to management reforms from middle managers and employees can be more evident in geographically dispersed APS offices. Implementation needs to occur consistently over an extended time throughout the regions.
- Dr Peter Graves, Public Service Research Group, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.