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Greg Moriarty: collaboration is the key to reform a ‘change-resistant bureaucracy’

Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty believes collaboration will be the single most important vector for improving the Australian Public Service.

“We have to work together better to meet the challenges of our time,” he told colleagues yesterday, explicitly flagging this as his most important take-away message in a speech to members of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Moriarty began with his own area of deep expertise. “National security must be a whole-of-government endeavour and the APS must develop stronger habits to support it.”

The top Defence bureaucrat said he hoped his fellow secretaries in the front row had noticed his department getting better at collaboration lately. “But we are are still not where we need to be in today’s increasingly complex, challenging and contested security environment.”

The type of collaboration now required in the national security space “challenges the traditional APS mindset” and means inter-departmental committee meetings are no longer enough, in Moriarty’s view. The same could be said of other major policy areas where multiple portfolio departments must work together.

“It’s part of the reason why APS reform is critical to Australia’s future success; we have to find ways to work more closely together and with partners outside the APS,” said the head of the Defence department.

The purpose of his address was to dispense “insights” from the ongoing period of change in the sprawling cluster of organisations that is Defence — “the most far-reaching reform program in its history” — to inform efforts to improve the entire public service, particularly via the APS Review.

Moriarty said he did not claim to have “a template for best-practice reform” but spoke from the premise that implementation of the Defence First Principles Review recommendations had been a big success – he would hardly say anything else – that offered lessons for the wider APS reform project.

The FPR identified structural and cultural issues that are common throughout the APS and was similarly framed as an attempt to prepare for a complex and challenging future.

The need for more effective avenues of collaboration, both internal and external, was “threaded through” all of the FPR’s recommendations, he said. It will also figure strongly in the APS review’s final report, based on the interim report launched recently chairman David Thodey.

“I was encouraged by the parallels between what Mr Thodey said and what I’m observing happening at Defence,” said Moriarty. “We are very conscious that these uncertain times demand reform and we in Defence are changing our mindsets accordingly.”

The speech presented Defence as an rough microcosm: a giant multi-layered group of organisations with vast operations, employing about 74,000 permanent public servants and military personnel and managing a massive portfolio of assets. Its people were “representative of a broad cross-section of the entire APS” as they include almost every different profession and skill-set you can imagine.

It was originally brought together from separate departments and still contains lots of distinct organisational units. Their different cultures and “inefficient internal operating models” did not just disappear with amalgamation; it has been a gradual process over the years.

“To change this Defence has been through review after review,” Moriarty noted, counting 35 major ones since the 1973 “reorganisation” led by Arthur Tange, which created the department.

The FPR was the 17th in a five-year period and “review fatigue” had firmly set in, the current secretary said. The organisation was “unable to achieve significant change” or, as the FPR report put it, it was a “change-resistant bureaucracy” and also had a few other features often said to exist elsewhere in the APS.

“The review also said defence was suffering from a proliferation of structures, processes and systems with unclear accountabilities. This was causing institutionalised waste, delayed decisions, duplication, over-escalation of issues for decision, and low engagement levels among employees.

“Defence was clearly not an organisation that was fit for purpose. We were not an organisation that could respond effectively to growing security challenges, and a fast changing environment.”

Things have changed for the better since then, said Moriarty. He described an impression of the department, when he came back to lead it last year having previously worked there from 1986 to 1995, which echoed the well-worn APS Review talking point about the public service: it was generally quite good at its core business, but needed increasingly urgent changes to prepare for the future.

That change won’t be easy, as Thodey told the IPAA crowd in his own address, but Defence already knows that, according to its secretary.

“But we are at a juncture in history where reform is no longer optional,” Moriarty added. “As leaders and employees of the APS we must collaborate deeper and quicker, and we must develop the behaviours that facilitate that collaboration.

“Respectful, professional and collegiate behaviours build trust within and across departments and agencies.

“If we can get the collaboration and behaviours piece right, I am confident that we will be well-placed to deliver the coordinated national power that future governments will need to deploy to successfully promote and protect our interests in the world.”

Powering up the ‘strategic centre’

The FPR called for “a more united, strategic, transparent and collaborative organisation with a high-performing workforce” and now, having implemented “all but two” of 75 recommendations accepted by the government, “nothing less than fundamental enterprise reform” has occurred, in Moriarty’s view.

The idea of “one Defence” also mirrors a desire for a more united APS that has been expressed in review after review, going back many years, including the current one.

This refers to a singular cultural identity to back up more coherent overarching strategies for the whole organisation. Structurally, Moriarty said that required a stronger, clearer role for the “strategic centre” or “the table where all of the really big decisions are made” in other words.

This might describe the Secretaries Board in the case of the APS as a whole, more often and more openly interpreting strategy set by Cabinet at a whole-of-government level, and working through a more collaborative public service to put it into action.

In Defence, strengthening the centre meant cutting the number of seats at the top table from 17 to six – the chief and vice-chief of the Defence Force, the secretary, and three other senior public servants. The number of “enterprise-level” committees for leaders below that was also reduced, from 25 to 11. Such streamlining is a precondition of more efficient operations and critical for successful organisational reform, in Moriarty’s view.

“Specifically, this centralised and representative centre facilitates a culture of unified decision making and one that is able to provide tighter and quicker support to government,” he said.

A strategic approach to capability and resourcing

Despite its eye-watering spending and contrary to popular belief outside the department, Moriarty said Defence operated in the same fiscally constrained environment as others, and the ability to re-allocate resources to “respond to government direction in the face of emerging security challenges” was vital.

“The reduced number of spans and layers that we now have, post the First Principles Review, allows us to do that much better,” the secretary said.

Similarly, changes to the way Defence plans and proposes to invest in future capabilities have streamlined a previously “fragmented and too cumbersome” approach he described as a “series of hand-offs” between about 7000 people spread over various areas.

Now there is more strategic thinking about requirements for infrastructure and skills, as well as maintenance for “platforms and assets” and what will be done when they become obsolete.

Department heads, central agencies and the APS commission are also going in this direction, looking at overall APS capability needs, and the review is likely to encourage this further.

Moriarty said a “critically important” reform in the defence capability acquisition process was bringing the Department of Finance and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet onto the central Defence investment committee. This led to substantially improved investment proposals to government, which are now more clearly linked to the policy priorities set out in the 2016 Defence white paper, via an enterprise-level investment plan.

Over 160 “Defence policy submissions and capability investment proposals” have been approved this financial year — an “extraordinary number” only made possible by the reforms, in the secretary’s view.

Cultural change for a streamlined structure

The Defence reforms also required cultural change to go with a more streamlined structure. Rather than trying to impose a consistent set of “attitudes and behaviours” on various sub-cultures, with their own proud histories and distinct identities, the department recognised they “do different jobs, but in order to achieve the same mission” and reinforced that message.

“To hold leaders to account for a more unified culture, the performance of the senior executive service is assessed equally on the basis of outcomes, and how those outcomes are delivered,” said the secretary.

“I require upward feedback on the performance of senior managers so that all performance assessments for the senior executive service include a clear view from staff as to how the leadership group are engaging, developing the capabilities of their teams and bringing the enterprise reforms forward.”

Recent APS Employee Census results showed significant improvement in how senior Defence staff are viewed, in terms of how well they set clear direction, and the department’s staff are generally a bit more positive about how their own contributions are valued.

Cultural reform is also an important part of attracting and retaining a high quality workforce marked by diversity, creativity and flexibility, Moriarty reminded the IPAA members.

The first question came from Renee Leon, secretary of the Department of Human Services, which was also created by bolting together separate organisations and faced “similar scale and complexity issues” to those described in the speech, according to its leader. How, she asked, was Defence finally achieving cultural change to move away from the intense risk aversion behind its “legendary” chains of approval where there were “multiple, multiple layers of clearance before anything could get done” — something it has in common with DHS, Leon said.

The FPR bluntly told Defence it had to get rid of some layers, and simply being decisive about doing that was helping to empower staff, said Moriarty. But the process was still ongoing and “an enormous struggle” to achieve, particularly within the military hierarchy, where cultural and structural change are both slow going.

“And the cultural piece again, in a command-and-control environment, is harder but we’re trying to encourage people to chance their arm with risk — but not in a sort of nutty way where I get risk proposals from, you know, grads — but within sections, we’re trying to encourage people to stress-test the policy positions that they have. So like, why do we need 12 submarines?

“So … within your work unit, have a healthy, respectful discussion about those type of issues.”

At the same time as reducing spans and layers in a large bureaucracy, Moriarty’s advice was to encourage staff to challenge and question long-held beliefs and accepted wisdom further down the chain.

The full speech and Moriarty’s answers to several more questions is available on video from the IPAA ACT Division website. All images: RLDI.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

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