Federal Budget 2019: a boring chapter in the ‘APS modernisation’ story

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday April 2, 2019

“A professional and connected public sector, delivering results for all Australians.” This is Public Service Minister Mathias Cormann’s one-line narrative for the Commonwealth bureaucracy in the coming financial year, if the government is returned to office.

In the agency resourcing paper, Cormann claims there has been a coherent plan for the public service all along, a “roadmap for modernising the public sector” during the Coalition’s time in office. But when you get to the detail, this year’s chapter in the story is not exactly a page-turner.

It opens by promising “plans to further improve and strengthen our public sector, so that it keeps pace with a rapidly changing environment and remains as efficient, effective and productive as possible”, but this refers to the continuation of existing plans and reforms already announced.

“Initiatives to improve efficiency, productivity and service quality demonstrate to the Australian community that the Government and the public sector are focused on meeting their needs,” the minister writes.

“Departmental Secretaries, the APS Commissioner and heads of agencies such as the Digital Transformation Agency and Australian Bureau of Statistics continue to lead coordination of the Government’s roadmap for reform, overseeing projects that are building a public sector that is better equipped to meet growing citizen and business needs.”

Cormann says the cuts of 2014-15 were “a journey towards a smaller public service and government” and 2015-16 was about “building efficiency and effectiveness” while in 2016-17, “modernising the business of government” was the name of the public service game.

In 2017-18, the government was “improving public sector productivity and sustainability” and last year, he says “better services to citizens and businesses, delivered more efficiently” was the focus.

“As in previous years, we must continue to increase efficiency, grow productivity and engage effectively with citizens and businesses, to deliver the best possible results for the community and the economy,” the minister writes this year, before highlighting a fairly humdrum series of funding commitments.

The Australian Taxation Office gets $82.4m to expand its Single Touch Payroll project, with new data on gross pay and child support withholding. “These changes will reduce the compliance burden for employers and individuals reporting information to multiple agencies and reduce complexity for people who are in both the tax and payment systems,” the minister explains.

Cormann also lists examples of modernising public service delivery that have already been announced: additional funding for “accelerated implementation” of the myGovID digital identity system, and trials of new jobseeker services based on the recommendations of last year’s independent review of the much-maligned jobactive system.

His only other example of modernisation in the 2019-20 plan is $8.4 million over two years for the Australian Electoral Commission to “identify the best way of deploying new polling place technology” that will reduce the reliance on paper electoral rolls. “The Government will also provide $2.4 million in 2019-20 to assist with the preparatory phase for upgrading the AEC’s ICT infrastructure, to identify the best technology to manage elections through the coming decades.”

Real edge-of-your-seat stuff. Of course, there was substantial funding for efforts to upgrade and overhaul the machinery of government in previous budgets, as we’re reminded again this year.

“The Government’s 2017-18 investment of $500 million over three years in the Modernisation Fund has enabled delivery of 42 projects. $165.8 million has been spent under the Modernisation Fund to 30 September 2018, with around 50 per cent of project milestones already achieved.”

“Tangible benefits are being realised” through these projects, Cormann assures us, as highlighted at the recent modernisation expo held by the Department of Finance where the new “Transparency Portal” was unveiled.

Then there are 25 other projects being run by agency leaders aimed at improving the public sector in six areas: productivity; policy, data and innovation; citizen and business engagement; structure and operating model; investment and resourcing; and workforce and culture.

Examples include a Centre of Procurement Excellence, a Productivity and Automation Centre of Excellence, a workforce mobility project and a whole-of-government workforce strategy, along with the GovTEAMS collaboration system and a pilot program focused on public sector productivity – measuring it accurately is at least half the challenge.

“As part of the roadmap for reform, Secretaries are working together on projects that will continue to build the capability of the public sector to provide sound policy advice based on broad research and data that is well tested with citizens, experts and implementers, with successful delivery designed-in from the start,” Cormann adds later in budget paper number four.

“This includes examining the role of evaluation to build the evidence base about what works, and why.”

Cyber upgrades and integrity commission

The budget also provides over $100m for the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission and a secret amount for a “cyber uplift” program in federal agencies, particularly focused on systems related to this year’s election.

“This includes the creation of cyber ‘Sprint Teams’ within the Australian Cyber Security Centre and a Cyber Security Response Fund,” according to the budget.

There is $104.5m over four years to establish the CIC, including $10 million in capital funding, and additional transitional funding for other integrity bodies: $2.2m in 2019-20 for the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity; $4.9m over four years for the Attorney-General’s Department to support the CIC; and $1m over three years for the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, starting from 2020-21.

“The Government will also provide a further $0.7 million in 2019-20 for ACLEI to continue its oversight of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and prescribed parts of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources,” the budget states. “This will enable ACLEI to continue its activities until it is subsumed by the CIC.”

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