Prime Minister bucks up the troops of the public service in a call to remember the ‘quiet Australians’

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday August 19, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose to begin Monday morning with his first major speech to the Australian Public Service, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia at Parliament House.

A web stream was arranged to show the speech live and a written preview was provided by the PM’s office. Morrison provides six “guideposts” for employees of the APS, “to show the way forward for the evolution of our public service” and reinforce his priorities.

“To support the Government across multiple, fast-moving policy and implementation challenges, the APS needs to evolve. In some cases, conventional wisdom needs to be challenged.

“And most importantly, in whatever role you have in the public service, we need to make sure you have a clear line of sight to those we serve, the public.

“I hope, therefore, my remarks today will provide greater understanding of how the APS can best support the government and, through the government, our nation.”

On the relationship between ministers and public servants

“The best teams are the ones where everyone knows what their job is and they do it well,” says the PM.

“My approach across multiple portfolios (Immigration, Social Services, Treasury and now as Prime Minister) has been based on a simple, straight-forward formula for managing my relationship with the public service – respect and expect.

“Respect the experience, professionalism and capability that the public service brings to the table, both in terms of policy advice and implementation. And then having set the policy direction, expect them to get on and deliver it.

“It is also about respecting the fact that responsibility for setting policy lies with the elected representatives of the people and expecting Ministers to provide that leadership and direction.

“This imposes an important responsibility on Ministers. They must be clear in what they are asking of the public service. They must not allow a policy leadership vacuum to be created, expecting the public service to fill it and do their job.

“One of the worst criticisms politicians can make of each other is that a Minister is a captive of their department. That is not a reflection on the department, but on the Minister. It speaks to a Minister not driving their policy agenda. I have selected and tasked my Ministers to set and drive the agendas of our Government. I believe the public have a similar expectation.

He wants his ministers to always “set the policy direction” and “have high expectations of the public service when it comes to implementation and delivery” of that agenda.

“A public servant providing advice must exercise all due diligence and professional care in its preparation, but it is the Minister who must decide as it is they who will face the public and be held to account. This is how it should be.”

“Only those who have put their name on a ballot can truly understand the significance of that accountability. I know you might feel sometimes that you are absolutely right in what you are suggesting, but I can tell you when it is you that is facing the public and must look your constituents in the eye, it gives you a unique perspective.”

The PM emphasises the importance of “respect and expect” once again.

“The public service is the indispensable engine room for any successful government in delivering on its commitments to Australians.”

“I have always believed that, guided by clear direction from Ministers, the public service is at its best when it is getting on with delivering the services Australians rely on and ensuring Governments can implement the policies they have been elected on.

“It’s important not only to establish clear lines of accountability. It is also fundamental to ensure our democracy keeps faith with the Australian people.”

On service delivery

“Ensuring services are delivered seamlessly and efficiently, when and where they are needed, is a key priority of my Government.”

“Just as good business strategy is always about how you execute it, the same is true in Government policy. It’s only ever as good as its implementation. And you are the implementers.

“Good government is about receiving excellent policy advice. But that advice is only as good as the consideration in detail that it gives to implementation and execution.

“And this is not an exercise in providing a detached and dispassionate summary of risks that are logged in the “told you so” file for reference in future memoirs.

“It’s about telling Governments how things can be done, not just the risks of doing them, or saying why they shouldn’t. The public service is meant to be an enabler of Government policy not an obstacle.

“The Australian people need to be at the centre of APS service delivery. That is the thinking behind Services Australia. This isn’t some fancy re-branding exercise.

“It’s a message to the whole of the APS – top-to-bottom – about what matters to people.

“It’s about ‘doing the little things well’ – everything from reducing call waiting times and turnaround on correspondence right through to improving the experience people have walking into a Centrelink office.

“I want to send a message to every single member of the APS, in whatever role you have: ‘You can make a difference to the lives of the Australian people.’

“We all have a job to do and that is to serve the Australian people.

“I’ve talked about the need for a culture of regulatory congestion busting in our bureaucracy.

“That doesn’t mean cutting corners or not meeting regulatory obligations.

“But it does mean being relentless in finding ways to help Australians make things happen and reach their goals. Not sitting passively while families and businesses struggle to navigate rules and regulations.

“We need interactions with government to be simpler and less bureaucratic.

“It’s why I have tasked my Assistant Minister Ben Morton with revitalising our regulatory reform and deregulation agenda, with a new Deregulation Taskforce in the Treasury.

“A key focus is on working with business to identify and remove unnecessary barriers to investment, with a focus on sectors and activities which have the most to gain.

“At the departmental level, Secretaries will need to be proactive in identifying ways to bust congestion in the Commonwealth bureaucracy. And all Ministers will continue to remain responsible for ensuring that regulations in their portfolios are fit-for-purpose.

“I also want congestion busted in the public service hierarchy which can block your contribution. You don’t have to be in the SES to have a good idea. I saw this in Treasury when I used to do budgets.

“I liked being down in the Treasury building, seeing people eating pizza, working hard, and taking pride in their work. It was the same when I would go out to the Social Services Department and spoke to those doing the distribution modelling.

“We need to harness it all to enable your meaningful impact on the decision making process.

“I am concerned that just over a quarter of the APS does not really feel they can impact what’s going on. This concerns me. I want people in the APS to feel they can make a contribution. I don’t want you to be shut out. You need to feel that you can make a difference. That is why you’re here.

“This is a failure of public service management to enable real engagement. This is one of the things I expect to see public service leaders change.

“I want to draw further down into the public service for advice to those doing things on the ground. I want your input more visibly in what’s coming through to me and my Ministers. I want the gatekeepers who control access to Ministers to ease up a bit and let you in.

“So don’t be surprised if you find yourself in my or one of my Minister’s office. And if you get a call and someone says it’s the PM, it may not be a prank call.”

On delivering outcomes

“We must have a strong emphasis on delivering outcomes, with priorities, targets and metrics across all portfolios,” Morrison says. He wants members of the APS to ask themselves three questions every day:

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. How do you know you’re on track to get there?
  3. What does it look like when you’ve achieved your goal?

“Faced with scarce resources, setting priorities is essential. Setting targets and metrics at the same time helps us stay on track. Sure it provides some necessary accountability when performance measures are in place, but the real purpose is to ensure we are getting done what we set out to do.”

“This is the information that helps me and my Cabinet be informed to make the decisions and adjustments to policy that keep us heading in the right direction, and providing you with the clarity you need to get on with your job.

“I want public servants to know and share in the success of public policy. I want you to feel good about what you do, the contribution you make and the positive difference you can make to the country and it’s future. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

“If your success is measured solely in career advancement through the seemingly infinite grades of the public service, I don’t think that’s enough. It’s not what I want my public service to be about as a citizen, let alone the Prime Minister. And I think the overwhelming majority of public servants feel the same.”

On the “quiet Australians”

Morrison highlights that while the “vast majority of Australians will never come to Canberra”, they are the real stakeholders, who rely on government services and expect a strong economy, safety and reliable services.

“I want the APS to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians. Those you don’t meet with and never hear from. Australians who just get on with it, but who often feel their voice gets drowned out by shoutier ones in our public square.

“There is strong evidence that the ‘trust deficit’ that has afflicted many Western democracies over recent years stems in part from a perception that politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle.

“This will not be the case under my Government.

“Middle Australia needs to know that the Government (including the public service) is on their side.”

On challenging the old

“The APS needs to evolve and adapt amidst constant change,” says the PM. “Old ways of doing things need to be challenged and, if necessary, disrupted.”

“As you know, David Thodey is leading a major review of the APS and I expect his report to pick up this theme of how the service needs to change so it can respond to new and emerging challenges – economic, social, technological and geopolitical.

“We need the APS to be an exemplar of innovation and adaptability. More agile and more responsive to the public where they live.

“There are many dimensions to this challenge, but I’ll focus on three where I believe profound cultural change needs to take place.

“Firstly, we need the public service to be more open to outsiders.

“Information has never been more available and expertise in our society has never been more dispersed. Citizens from all walks of life have never had more outlets to express their views – their likes and dislikes.

“To succeed, government needs to tap insights, skills and energy from more points on the compass than those who have only ever worked in the public service.

“While some of our brightest minds will want a career in the federal bureaucracy, many will not. We need to find new ways for smart, dedicated Australians to make a contribution to public service, to see a stint in the public service as part of their career journey. And likewise for career public servants to see time outside of the APS in the non government sector and in business as an important part of their career journey. The system should reinforce these choices.

“The APS needs to be world-class at collaborating with external partners on all the challenges we face as a country – everything from grasping the productivity opportunity of the digital economy, to ending the export of waste to using Big Data to dramatically improve service delivery.

Joining up, flattening out and getting digital

“The second area where disruption and cultural change are needed is in breaking down the bureaucratic silos and hierarchies that constrain our capacity to fix problems.

“We need an APS that’s more joined-up internally and flexible in responding to challenges and opportunities.

“The third area of disruption is greater use of digital technology.

“The digital revolution — with the exponential rise in connectivity, data generation, processing power and personalised service delivery — continues to reshape our jobs, industries and lives on a daily basis.

“With our fellow Australians among the most enthusiastic early adopters of technology in the world, harnessing the power of digital technology is not an option for the Australian Government. It’s the future of it.

“Government needs to connect instantaneously and seamlessly with Australians to answer questions, provide services, make payments and solve problems.

“Just as technology opens up new opportunities, it also creates new vulnerabilities. Whether it be working through the ethical and privacy dimensions of the digital revolution or protecting our systems from malicious cyber activity, the Australian Government cannot be anywhere but the frontier.”

On honouring the code

“I want to reaffirm my Government’s commitment to an APS that is apolitical, merit based and committed to the highest standards of integrity.

“These core elements of the Westminster tradition are as important as they have ever been, not least to securing the trust and legitimacy democratic governments need implement good policy and to deliver services successfully.

“And on the critical relationship between Ministers, their staff and the bureaucracy, let me underscore what I have said directly to all members of my Government. I expect my Ministers to be demanding. I also expect them and their staff to discharge their responsibilities with the highest standards of professionalism and within a values framework of mutual respect.

“It’s important we value diversity in the public service. This is right in and of itself. It is in keeping with the more diverse, pluralistic society Australia has become over recent decades. And it chimes with our national ethos of “live and let live”.

“I believe a commitment to diversity should encompass diversity of viewpoints within the APS. There is compelling evidence that this helps teams find answers to complex problems by bringing together people who approach questions from different points of view.

“The American academic Jonathan Haidt has made this point powerfully in challenging worrying trends toward conformity in the university sector. His observations are relevant to the future of our public service.

“It’s vital that the APS avoid the sort of stale conventional wisdoms and orthodoxies that can infuse all large organisations.”

On the Thodey review

“I expect there will be more debate on the issues I have raised today when the Independent Review of the APS that I referred to earlier is received by the Government.”

“The review will be finalised shortly and I want to thank David Thodey and the review panel for their time and commitment to this exercise.”

“Once the report has been received, I will be asking the Secretaries Board under Phil Gaetjen’s leadership to evaluate the review’s recommendations and to report to Cabinet on relevant issues and findings.”

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