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APS reviewer Belinda Hutchinson: both major parties want to pursue public service reform

Both major parties are “showing strong signs of taking on board” the panel’s recommendations, according to APS reviewer Belinda Hutchinson.

The University of Sydney chancellor said “engaging with both sides of parliament” was one of the panel’s top priorities and it seemed like both were “keen to see this review completed,” in an interview with The Mandarin.

Any independent panel brought in to review the Commonwealth’s entire administrative apparatus has to be optimistic its recommendations will be taken up.

“I see the timing of the report post the election as really good. … Given the environment we operate in today and the politicisation of almost everything you do, it would worry me if we were coming out with the report now,” Hutchinson said.

“I think coming out with the report in June, July, will hopefully enable the new government – of whatever persuasion they might be – to really take on board our recommendations and act on them quickly.”

“I think this is absolutely critical for the Australian Public Service; they deserve this. They deserve an operating environment [in] which they can deliver.”

Noting the panel is looking to a general goal of making sure the APS is “absolutely fit for purpose” by 2030, Hutchinson said most of the recommended action would form a “three-year-plus exercise” and whatever government is in place after the election would at least have enough time in office to make some headway.

As she said in an article published on the review website, Hutchinson is worried about the difficulty of giving apolitical advice amid “a public conversation where there seems to be limited focus on listening and respectful debate” and she feels people are quick to criticise the APS but overlook the “extraordinary results” it does achieve.

“We actually do have a strong public health system, a strong public education system, and we actually do deliver on social security in terms of a safety net.

“Have we got it perfect? No. Is there friction in delivery? Yes. Do we have to improve it? Yes.

“But I think we forget how the APS does deliver already. I just hope the government will give us the opportunity to hand over the report to the Australian Public Service and appoint someone very senior to undertake the transformation.”

Our interlocutor said the reviewers were having “robust discussions” and that’s a very good thing, in her view. All members were keenly aware they had to turn the ideas in their interim report into “really clear recommendations” in the next few months. “And that’s why we really wanted to test some of the ideas that we had — because we want to make sure that they are going to be able to be acted upon.”

Running these ideas up the flagpole halfway was an effort “to make sure that what we’re recommending does make sense, and enable us to be a bit more granular in what we’re saying.”

“So I think we’ve got some hard work to do, but we really wanted to test some of the ideas before we came out with some more definitive plans. I think we’re all heading in the same direction, and I think we all have the same ultimate goal, but we all have different ideas — and I think that’s why the panel was put together.”

One key concern she raised was “under-investment in a whole range of areas of the APS” while its hundreds of agencies faced all the same challenges as other large and complex organisations.

“The budgeting process probably is not very effective in terms of enabling long-term investment, and in addition the structure of the APS provides barriers for the APS to be able to work in a holistic manner,” said Hutchinson.

Politicisation: what does it even mean, and how can you reduce it?

Ministers and government MPs are routinely accused of actively politicising the public service in various ways, including through appointments and terminations, or by co-opting its work for blatant political campaigning.

Much like claims that a minister has broken a fundamental convention, or abrogated their solemn responsibility in some way, these accusations rarely have as much political impact as hoped. A lot of voters simply hear one side saying the other has crossed a line, but it’s not a bright line they can see.

One area where the reviewers want a clearer process and more transparency is around the termination of secretaries; currently ministers can just say they have lost confidence in them, but the panel thinks due process should be enshrined in legislation. Generally, however they don’t seem to see a need to strengthen and clarify for the public what exactly an apolitical public service means in practice.

Hutchinson looks at the idea of politicisation from a different point of view, as well. She sees the ideological space within which the public service can frame its advice narrowing, under pressure from increasingly polarised public debate. This is certainly a big challenge for public servants, but it will be very challenging for the review to address it.

This is the politicisation of ideas themselves in society: specific policy options are themselves quickly tied to particular political views or parties. It can then be very difficult for public servants to present certain options to a government if they are already widely seen as belonging more with the members opposite, even if they’re good ideas.

This can also happen to big policy challenges, like climate change, so the importance of addressing them — or otherwise — is politicised, not just the potential policy responses.

“My interpretation is that the public service has felt less able to speak up on long-term policy issues and even short-term policy issues because of fear of being seen to have a political view,” she said.

“For me, it’s not just the government of the day, it’s the politicians in parliament, it’s various external groups [through] the media — a whole range of public stakeholders who tend to say, if a particular public servant comes out on an issue, ‘They shouldn’t be saying that because that’s a political view.’

“Well, it’s not necessarily a political view; maybe they’re just stating the facts. But so much today in both social media and main media becomes just highly politicised, with either the far-right or the far-left, or even in-between, making just what really are very subjective, opinionated comments.

“Whereas, it would be so much better if we had a more balanced and moderate approach to things.”

As a university chancellor, creating an environment where people can have robust but respectful debates is a familiar challenge. Strategies to encourage students and staff to “disagree well” have become a key concern on campuses in recent years, she points out.

“But I think for the public service it’s much more difficult, because they are there to support the government of the day.

“And therefore, I think it is constricting for them in the current environment, and I think we need to provide an environment where they [are] able to provide frank and fearless advice without the concern that every email, or whatever else they send, is going to be scrutinised upside-down, inside-out.”

She is also worried “short-termism” has taken hold, and speaks of somehow giving the public service both more time and more ideological space, so it can do more of the “detailed, policy analysis and review work that should be done for the very, very complex social and economic issues” facing Australia.

This is a tall order, of course, and it’s just one aspect of what Hutchinson admits has been a “hugely challenging task” for the reviewers.

One of the panel’s intentions is to foster more productive working relationships between the APS and ministerial offices, and it supports the idea of standard training for new ministers and parliamentarians, as proposed by the head of the APS, Martin Parkinson, in his last end-of-year address.

“I think an induction program for new ministers, for new ministerial staffers, for parliamentarians, would be absolutely critical,” said Hutchinson, who sits on multiple boards including as chair at arms manufacturer Thales.

“I know in every organisation that I’ve ever joined, as an employee or as a director, inductions programs are really substantial. And it’s a very important [process] where you get to learn about the organisation, and then [you are] able to make a contribution.”

This should also apply to new public servants who come to the APS at high level; “its graduate induction programs are good, but for people who come in [from other sectors] at high levels, we think there is room for more work to be done on induction programs for public servants themselves,” according to the reviewer.

Citizen-centric service delivery through ‘matrix reporting’ and joined-up policy

Westminster government is based around separate portfolios to make it clear to the public who is responsible for what, but these administrative silos are often said to hamper good policy as they do not reflect what life is really like.

Whether issues for public policy have become more complex or their complexity has just become better understood, it is increasingly recognised that they often cut across portfolios. Citizen-centred service delivery is another goal demanding more joined-up administration.

So is it possible to break down the silos and join up government, without diluting ministerial responsibility? And wouldn’t the cabinet of the day have to choose to take on more collective responsibility and essentially direct agencies to link up and work together more?

Hutchinson is confident public service leaders “can break down those barriers themselves” in many cases, with a more powerful Secretaries Board working ever more closely together.

“Yes there is some fundamental engagement with the ministers [required] to enable some of it [but] some of the stuff you can actually start and get going now, and … the Secretaries Board already is looking at that,” she said.

“They’ve got a number of reforms that they’re looking at and are going to start implementing without even [waiting for] our report coming out.”

For service delivery, she said the panel would propose “something like a matrix reporting structure” with separate line areas responsible for their respective roles but also for contributing to a sense that government is a unified whole, which would make life easiest for citizens.

Hutchinson sees the Service New South Wales model as a good example of the kind of joined-up service delivery required. The shift towards outcome budgeting in NSW, as well as Britain and New Zealand, has also been influential. For policy development, she suggests the old separations between ministries are unhelpful as well, given so many issues actually span traditional portfolios.

“The policy issues that the public service is trying to deal with are very, very complex and multi-factoral. So we have to be able to have policy formation which is cross-disciplinary, which deals with those issues so that we can come up with long-term solutions.”

The panel is trying to define how to do that in practice: more co-ordination from the centre is one idea. Hutchinson also thinks greater staff mobility would help, so departments exchange staff more often as well as working together more through partnerships at the top level.

The reviewers do not claim to be breaking new ground and don’t see their role as recommending bold new approaches, but perhaps their special position can put some impetus behind reasonably well accepted ideas for improvement, and perhaps create the political space for a government to commit more resources to APS reform.

Secretaries and the APS commissioner have repeatedly stressed that some of this work is already underway, and Hutchinson has heard the same message when running the panel’s ideas past the mandarins.

“We’ll say, ‘What about doing this?’ and they’ll say, ‘We’re already working on something along those lines,’ and then we try and come up with something which we think will be more helpful.

“I think there is a real desire for change and for enabling much greater interoperability within the public service.”


READ MORE:

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Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.