Phil Gaetjens: understanding the Prime Minister’s reform agenda for the Australian Public Service

By Philip Gaetjens

December 10, 2019

Philip Gaetjens. Photo: IPAA ACT

Phil Gaetjens gave his first address to the Australian Public Service as the new secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on December 5, 2019 in Canberra, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Key messages for the APS from its top mandarin:

  • Flagging further consolidation of corporate functions, and increased focus on policy, programs and service delivery.
  • Cross-portfolio taskforces and machinery of government changes will help the APS solve wicked problems by going beyond business-as-usual approaches.
  • Increased data sharing across government will improve services to become more citizen-centric and rebuild trust.

It’s great to address you for the first time as the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

And like my former role as Secretary of the Treasury, it’s a role I am very privileged to occupy.

It’s fair to say however that I had not plotted a career designed to occupy either role. As Steven readout, and as I have said before, I have not actually pursued a career — in contrast, I have sought, achieved and apparently performed adequately in a succession of interesting jobs.

For most of my full-time life, I have pursued interests, but for my first jobs, the greatest driver was the need for an independent income.

While at Flinders University, I worked for the Army at national service and CMF camps and was a dixie-basher — or a pot washer in a kitchen, or a waiter or a toilet cleaner.

And while economics and geography were my subjects at Flinders, governance became an extra-curricular activity which spawned an interest I have maintained to this day.

I was on the Committee of the Student Union at Flinders, which focussed on providing services to students. I was not a member of the more politically activist Students Representative Council.

At both Flinders and at ANU, I played hockey and was also a senior office-bearer in both Hockey Clubs and in the University Sports Unions, including being the Treasurer at the ANU Sports Union. I think I’m still a life member actually, of the ANU Sports Union.

At the pursuit of good governance, good policy and good process has been a common thread for me since university and through my roles in policy agencies in the Commonwealth and state public services, as Chief of Staff to the Treasurer in Parliament House and in the APEC Secretariat in Singapore where I was the inaugural head of the Policy Support Unit.

My interests and tasks in those roles progressed through research, policy development, legislative drafting, legislative programming and policy advising to government, within government and between governments in Australia and overseas.

At all times I have had a practical bent and a firm belief in the need to be constantly focused on delivering outcomes.

For the more than 40 years that I have worked as a public official, I have continued to see tremendous strength and value in public service.

From my own experience in the APS and when working with other APS officials as a Chief of Staff, I think we’re at our very best when we’re delivering for the Australian people.

Our purpose remains constant

Over these 40 years of my service, I think our fundamental role and purpose have not changed much.

In the policy spaces that I have worked in, the principles I learned from one of my first bosses in PM&C — Mike Waller — still remain relevant.

He articulated in clear language that policy advising is a severely practical discipline.

Good policy is shaped as much by the thinkers as doers.

Good policy is coordinated not just for good process but for coherent outcomes. And contestability in the development of policy advice is an inherent strength.

I find it reassuring — and I hope you do too — that those principles are as relevant today as they were then, in the mid-1990s.

But the majority of the APS is not in a policy advisory role.

Most of the APS are involved in service delivery or supporting it. I am very aware of this and that the majority of the APS works around Australia and not in Canberra.

For all of us, our purpose is to deliver — practically, efficiently and coherently — good outcomes for the Australian people in policy design, implementation and ongoing service delivery.

We should always keep that top of mind.

Purpose v change

Having clarity about our purpose is essential given the changes that can occur in the political and policy context in which we operate. Community opinion changes politics and community expectations shape policy.

In summary, our context is change, as seen locally and globally through the broad shifts in geopolitics and economic power.

So the way we work has to change to reflect that. Because when your environment changes, you adapt.

Today, the Prime Minister announced a significant restructure of Commonwealth administration to take effect on the first of February next year — reducing the number of departments from 18 to 14.

This will reduce the number of bureaucratic silos, support more integrated services and increase policy coherence within the new portfolios — objectives foreshadowed by the Prime Minister in his speech to the public service last August.

It will also accelerate the long-term consolidation of back-office functions, enabling the APS to maximise its focus on policy, programs and service delivery not internal administration.

This change is part of the government’s broader reform agenda for the APS — which is all about continuing our fight to reduce bureaucratic congestion and maintaining a laser-like focus on our underlying purpose: meeting the needs of Australians and improving their lives.

Sadly, this change also means fewer Secretaries, and I want to acknowledge how tough this is for all of us today, especially those who won’t be continuing as Secretaries in the new structure.

I know I speak on behalf of all of my Secretary colleagues, and many of you here today, when I say how much Kerri, Heather, Renee, Daryl, and Mike have contributed to the fabric of the APS, as leaders of their departments, as stewards of the Service, and as policy advisors and service deliverers.

They have all made significant differences to this country and to the Australian community over many years, and we will miss them as part of our team.

Their advice, achievements and leadership have been valued by governments of all stripes and their staff, and I know that my Secretaries Board colleagues will join me in wishing each of them well in their next endeavours.

The government and the APS are also working on joining skills and capabilities to undertake cross-cutting work within and between agencies.

A number of taskforces have been set up to tackle big issues that transcend portfolio boundaries.

  • Digital services and technology;
  • Critical minerals and critical technologies;
  • Deregulation; and
  • Waste.

The deregulation taskforce, for example, housed in Treasury, was established only three months ago yet the Prime Minister announced initiatives from its work in his speech to the Business Council of Australia last month in three key priority areas:

  • making it easier for sole traders and microbusinesses to employ their first person;
  • getting beneficial projects up and running; and
  • reducing the regulatory burden for food manufacturers.

These taskforces are more than just process and configuration, they are about thinking and working differently and approaching problems in a more focused way.

Through structural machinery of government changes and more agile cross-portfolio taskforces, we are going beyond business-as-usual to seek ways to approach and solve “wicked problems”.

In addition to removing rigidities, hierarchies or silos that are hindering us from doing our best work, we are also embracing new tools and the use of technology.

This is the positive side of change.

We now have an entire genus of tools none of our predecessors had.

This is the positive side of change. We now have an entire genus of tools none of our predecessors had.

Tools to deliver the kinds of services the public expects, and even to exceed those expectations if we use them well.

One of the most significant tools is to turn already collected information into data and use it to improve the customer experience.

Using data as a tool to improve service delivery

With robust data and intelligent data use, we can make a huge difference to how governments and citizens interact.

One example where we’ve been doing this well is at the ATO.

Some of you will remember, as I do, going to the post office to pick up a tax pack and then spend hours filling it in, surrounded by a forest of statements and receipts.

Around 100,000 people each year still do it that way.

But eTax changed all that — and myTax has made it even easier.

Since it came in five years ago, myTax has reduced the time a tax return takes from hours to minutes.

Over time more has been pre-filled from information already collected from banks and other companies on dividends, employers through single touch payroll and banks again on interest receipts.

It’s also massively accelerated the receipt of early refunds: in 2019, 82% of refunds have been issued within a week of lodgement.

That’s up from 0% four years ago.

It’s little wonder then, that for the 2018-19 financial year — when tax was lowered for low and-middle income earners — there was an 18% increase in people using myTax.

Clearly, this is one area where interacting with government is easier, and we need to do more of this.

The Behavioural Economics Team — also known as BETA — within PM&C is also looking across government services to make interactions, like filling forms, easier for everyone.

In 2019, forms are still the most common touchpoint people have with government. So those that are badly designed carry real consequences for people’s lives.

It could mean the difference between somebody getting the help they need, or missing out. Earlier this year, BETA hosted a sold-out forum — called ‘Formapalooza’ — on making government forms shorter, more intuitive and quicker to fill in.

The event involved public officials applying BETA’s new form design framework to improve five existing government forms. It will be exciting to see the new generation of streamlined forms coming from the public servants at this event.

We also need to use data more cleverly to simplify the lives of many Australians, and we also need to integrate and share data more effectively.

The Data Availability and Transparency Bill, which Minister Robert recently announced the government intends to introduce next year, will support greater sharing of government data to help us improve service delivery, lift productivity and unlock policy and research benefits.

Because data is not abstract. It’s not just a ‘nice-to-have.’ It is a fundamentally practical tool which allows us to deliver better and well-targeted services.

We are already experimenting with integrated datasets to understand the potential they might unlock to allow us to look at whole systems and pictures.

To give you just one example, the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (or MADIP) has enabled us to make school funding a lot fairer.

In the past, we’ve used Census data to calculate non-government school funding needs, but as a broad-brush view of socio-economic status, it wasn’t always delivering the fairest results.

The status of some schools was over-rated, while others were underrated. Income was not evenly distributed in Census statistical areas.

Bringing in more data from across government through MADIP means we can use ATO data to determine the socio-economic score for non-government schools — a much more reliable and ultimately fairer funding model that better supports non-government schools with the greatest need.

And it was only possible because of advances made in data-sharing capabilities.

Such advances have and will change outcomes for big pieces of government policy and expenditure of public funds. They can even change lives.

Engaging with data also means we can deliver the services people expect: face-to-face, online, mobile, but most of all, citizen-centric.

Done right, it will help us to rebuild trust.

Building the APS

Data is an important and incredibly promising tool. I encourage the APS to embrace it and explore further.

But it is only part of the picture.

Earlier this year David Thodey delivered to me the Final Report of the APS Review that he chaired, for transmission to the Prime Minister. It is a 384 page report and as requested by the Prime Minister, the Secretaries Board has evaluated its recommendations and provided advice for the government to consider in formulating its response.

And I note in this afternoon’s press conference, the Prime Minister indicated that that might be next week.

The Secretaries Board sees a great deal of complementarity between the APS Review recommendations and the six guideposts the Prime Minister outlined to the APS in his August speech.

With my fellow Secretaries, on our own initiatives and through the Secretaries Board, we have committed to work as a management committee of the APS enterprise to govern “an APS that’s more joined-up internally and flexible in responding to challenges and opportunities.”

Closing remarks

So let me finish by saying that I’ve always had high expectations of the public service — and those expectations have only increased in this role.

We are a diverse and talented bunch. We’re an eclectic range of defence personnel, scientists, security and intelligence agency personnel, policy advisers, diplomats, corporate administrators, service providers, service enablers and regulators, and probably a few more.

The ideas and enthusiasm that exist across the APS in all the locations in which we work and all levels at which we work — are quite remarkable.

But what has always impressed me the most is the dedication that we have. It’s a quality, I believe, that unites us all.

And while it is a quality that has united us over the decades, we must also be entrepreneurial, flexible and adaptable to keep fulfilling our roles as public officials to meet the needs of Australians.

Only by evolving and adapting to change will we be able to continue to serve the Australian public and gain their confidence that we are doing our best, with the best tools available, in their best interests.

So let’s be worthy of their trust.

Thank you, everyone. As I said at the start, it’s a privilege to serve in this role, and I look forward to working with all of you in the years ahead.

I wish you all a great Christmas and New Year break and a great start to 2020 when you return. Thanks very much.

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