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Canberra ‘too remote’ from most Australians, says de Brouwer

Government risks becoming separated from the people, warn a group of mandarins, as policy and service functions move apart.

The Commonwealth government has to start working more closely with communities to overcome its “aloofness” from the majority of Australians, says public service review panel member Gordon de Brouwer.

“Around Canberra people talk in abstract terms, rather than the direct life experience of people,” said the former federal environment secretary at last week’s IPAA national conference in Melbourne.

“Around Canberra people talk in abstract terms, rather than the direct life experience of people.”

“Canberra tends to go to abstractions rather than a lot of that applied, on-the-ground service delivery and engagement with local communities. Just because it’s a bit more distant, and people are thinking nationally and they’re thinking in the abstract nationally.”

Government, he says, needs to go beyond mere stakeholder engagement — “a terrible term … which really means how do you manage the people who might be noisy” — and engage genuinely with communities about designing and delivering good services.

Co-designing services at the local level gives people a say, but also improves what’s being delivered.

“Co-design is a really good step. Working cooperatively with the state and territory governments. That’s not novel, but there’s not always a lot of success in that domain,” he argues.

And de Brouwer has some ideas for how to encourage public servants to do better.

“People have a sense that it is too remote, but how do we change and how do we become more engaged?

“You talk about aloofness, or remoteness, and not being disposed to co-design. You change that by changing incentives for promotion, you change that by having people move around more, so that they know the states and they know local communities more, and you make that genuine engagement with the public a priority of the policy process, or the service delivery process,” he said.

Trust and better services

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who receive services ‘often like to be involved in designing those services'”.

Victorian Education Secretary Gill Callister gave an example where working with organisations at the community level could be more effective than the abstract, top-down approach.

“I remember being in a forum where we were working on a co-designed Aboriginal education plan with the community — which I have to say people are very proud of and engaged with in the Aboriginal community,” she explained.

“And we often use percentages, we talk about the terrible percentages of children missing out … but when you get down to numbers, it’s often doable on the numbers.

“So this particular forum, it was 22 children who weren’t going to school. 22 is a doable number in a big regional centre. There are plenty of services, plenty of people who can think about it as a whole-of-community problem.

“… You can get 22 kids to school every day with a more creative approach.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who receive services “often like to be involved in designing those services”, said Simon Phemister, deputy secretary at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

He sees co-design as a core job for the public service in the next 20 years. While for many agencies it was new ground, he noted South Australia “are leading the way”.

“In a hyper-political environment at a time when trust is waning, what better antidote than to actually get in and genuinely work with communities, be it places, Indigenous communities, different consumer and client groups,” Phemister said.

Over the past five to 10 years, a few Commonwealth agencies have developed some sophistication in this area, said Jill Charker, deputy secretary at the Department of Jobs and Small Business.

“Some agencies are really building up centres of excellence in co-design, are really proactively engaging at the front end of policy and implementation processes,” she thinks.

“To gather evidence in a co-design way, not just in a slightly removed, aloof, data way, but evidence by getting humans who might actually be impacted by these policies in a room, or in a lab, or going out to where they are, and actually testing or getting views about how something will work on the ground.”

Delivery and policy further apart

“The centre of government is ‘not so big in delivery, even in the states, anymore. It’s much patchier.'”

It’s not just Canberra that’s aloof from the frontline — the public servants who write policy are increasingly divorced from delivery, says Callister.

The public service of 20 years ago played a significant role in delivery, when nurses, social workers and teachers used to move in and out of the central parts of government more often, she argues.

But the centre of government is “not so big in delivery, even in the states, anymore. It’s much patchier.”

Broader experience is vital to ensure services are well designed.

“We need to find a way for younger public servants coming through to understand, to make sure they’re not disconnected from how people actually experience services on the ground, in health and education and welfare services,” Callister said.

“If people have a sense of what it is actually like to deliver or experience on the ground when creating policy and programs. Because if those two things grow further and further apart, they run the greater risk of being unsuccessful.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.