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Tom Burton: VPS key to ‘delivering’ the ‘Danslide’

If there is an unsung hero of Saturday’s so-called “Danslide” state election result, it is the Victorian public service.

It is one thing for ministers to promise delivery; it is completely another to actually do it. Premier Andrews’ central campaign slogan of “delivering” for all Victorians would have been quickly dismissed by a deeply sceptical electorate, if there was not an underlying community belief that the massive infrastructure, health and education building programs are actually meeting their needs.

It is one thing to have lots of glossy ads and billboards but, as the NSW Government is learning, getting complex urban growth and renewal projects up without either major contractor or community backlash is no easy task.

Sophisticated delivery focus

“It is one thing to have lots of glossy ads and billboards but, as the NSW Government is learning, getting complex urban growth and renewal projects up without either major contractor or community backlash is no easy task.”

Watching from the grandstand (William St, Melbourne), the focus and determination by Victorian government delivery agencies has been sophisticated and sustained. With large parts of the city and commuter corridors disrupted there, has been an impressive whole-of-government engagement to drive the completion of major freeway and transport upgrades, many which have involved serious community and stakeholder management.

It may seem small beer, but completing over 70 level crossing removals — most in busy commercial suburban hubs — has been an exemplar of focused project delivery and large-scale community engagement. It has not been all happiness. But compared with the deep community push back in Sydney to its big infrastructure programs, Melbourne’s level crossing program is a good lesson for all city planners on how to win broad acceptance.

VicRoads has long had a strong reputation for delivery. But as Melbourne’s population grows by about the equivalent of one Darwin each year, there has been huge pressure to accelerate major short and long-term projects. The establishment of separate Major Transport Infrastructure agency, headed by Corey Hannett, focussed project delivery and brought much stronger cross government coordination. This will need to continue as large urban hinterlands continue to be rapidly developed to accommodate the huge population growth.

Again it has not been all perfect, but compared with the delivery pains in Sydney, there has been a formidable delivery focus to get major road connectors built and operational.

And as the ongoing farce around Sydney’s city-to-Randwick light rail line shows, scoping and planning these large transport projects takes high-level project delivery skills, capabilities which go well beyond the actual construction delivery risk.

At a time of a major commercial construction boom, getting the resources and highly sought-after technical skills onto these projects has really stretched government planners and will continue to be a pain point as population growth — fuelled by middle-class Asians, lured by Australia’s high-liveability rankings — is expected to continue.

Cleverly, the Victorian government has framed this as a real chance to build skills and capability around so-called “smart” infrastructure, pushing major technical upgrades of core operating systems.

“Completing over 70 level crossing removals — most in busy commercial suburban hubs — has been an exemplar of focused project delivery and large-scale community engagement.”

Victoria has had a long heritage of strong public sector leadership, with its famous cluster model giving it real strength. Some of these agencies are ginormous. The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, covers a vast array of delivery functions, ranging from kids-at-risk to flu vaccinations.

The clusters, or super portfolios, have been given a great degree of autonomy, which has largely freed them from central agency intervention. But the sheer size of DHHS and the equally sprawling Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources has had senior officials considering machinery-of-government changes that would see these agencies restructured to enable better focus and accountability.

Cross-government digital transformation

At the same time, the increasing need to drive cross-government digital transformation is creating the need for a much stronger central presence to bring coherence to the multi-billion-dollar ICT spend now underway. As services and programs are increasingly integrated, there is a real need to look at the overall system architecture and to bring together the design of these services so citizens and communities do not have to constantly navigate the alphabet soup of government agencies.

Service Victoria is a good example of this cross-agency thinking, but will need real central agency mandate if it is to emerge as the shopfront for all government services.

At a technical level, the ability to build key digital functions once, rapidly roll them out and maintain them across the entire government system will increasingly demand central agency oversight, with real incentives and disincentives to stop the duplication that has been a real cost of the cluster model.

Significantly, Victoria is leading the way on the use of open-source systems, designing networks to enable cross-system deployment of new applications (known as containerisation). DPC’s single government web presence project is a good exemplar of this type of thinking, and an early insight into why all state governments are consolidating their central agency capability around data integration and network design.

Second-term governments typically are better than first-term governments. Ministers are more confident, and the duds have been washed out of the system. Similarly, relationships with the public sector have matured, especially the key connection between ministerial offices and senior bureaucrats.

This is a strength, but can also lead to complacency.

To reverse the comparison, there is much to learn from NSW’s razor focus on customer service and citizen satisfaction around its service delivery. The NSW Premier’s office gets real-time data on service delivery KPIs, enabling the Premier to answer the question: how did we go yesterday? Day-to-day, whole-of-system metrics drive all of government focus, something the powerful Victorian clusters have largely pushed back on. Just ask Service Victoria.

The elephant in the room is automation and how it is to be rolled out across the VPS. Advanced data analytics and intelligent systems promise to revolutionise public services, freeing staff from repetitive manual tasks and enabling agencies to focus on the deeper problems that require higher skills.

Melbourne is the heartland of the union movement and with the public sector unions actively fighting what they say is the “Uberisation” of government, there needs to be a far more intelligent engagement and dialogue between agencies and their unions, if citizens are to benefit from the inevitable wide scale digitisation of government.

We have been through transformations before — some still remember typing pools and gestetner copiers. But the opportunity to deeply transform government delivery through artificial intelligence, smart algorithms and well-designed, easy-to-use services, means there will have to be much more focus on the actual change management process that brings all staff into the design and delivery of the next generation of service delivery — including the integration of federal and local government services, such as death of a loved one or birth of a child.  

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.