What drives problems with policy capacity in the APS? Have your say

By Anne Faulkner

Friday February 7, 2020

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The ability of the Australian Public Service to “efficiently and effectively serve the government, parliament and the Australian public” needs to improve. This is the key message from the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, chaired by David Thodey AO, which submitted its final report and 40 recommendations last December after 16 months of review. The report indicates that this will require development of APS capability in many areas, including policy advice and strategic policy capability.

Identified in the detail of the report are the strategies to achieve this, including changes to the way the APS learns, collects information, evaluates, reviews its performance, and manages the individual performance of its people.

As the Thodey report acknowledges, however, these problems, and many of the recommendations, are not new. They unsettlingly mirror those that have emerged from many administrative reviews of the past decade and are seemingly unachieved.

By way of example: enhancing policy capability, building expertise, using external partnerships and engaging with the public to improve policy advice and policy and improving performance management are areas of work that have been the focus of recommendations in each of: the Thodey report, the Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration released in 2010, and some of the findings of the Secretaries’ APS Reform Committee over the past few years. Critical to contemporary ideas about the public service is also the re-emergence in the Thodey report of ideas about accountability and trust in government that appeared in the Ahead of the Game report 10 years ago.

The Thodey review suggests that the reason for failure to achieve transformation in the past sits with poor implementation of recommendations, calling, this time, for stronger leadership and co-ordination, building greater capability and measuring progress, and the provision of sufficient and sustained investment and cultural change.

Could the repeated emergence of these findings in multiple reviews also suggest, however, the need for a closer look at the nature of the assumed relationships between some of the strategies and their goals? Assumptions made about how to build capacity and create cultural change in the public sector have attracted relatively little scrutiny, and choice of strategies may benefit from a closer examination.

By way of example: a critical relationship is often assumed to exist between performance and accountability measures and policy capacity. The assumption is that performance and accountability measures can, at least in part, drive policy capacity through enhancing personal accountability for work and increasing transparency. There is little evidence, however, of how this relationship effects the complex work of social policy, for example, which requires nimble thinking and innovative ideas to work closely and flexibly with communities and networks.

A new study led be UNSW Canberra is exploring the links between performance and accountability requirements for social policy capacity. This will examine the administrative conditions for policy workers that enable social policy capacity in Commonwealth public service agencies. To do this, the project is examining the APS performance and accountability framework and interviewing public sector social policy officers to understand how these frameworks and other administrative imperatives are interpreted by APS policy workers and influence their everyday policy work. The research will identify how policy capacity is affected by administrative demands regarding performance and accountability and how performance and accountability systems might better support social policy workers for better social policy outcomes.

If you are interested in being involved in this research as an active social policy worker at the Senior Executive Service level, Executive Level 2 or Executive Level 1, then we are seeking interviewees and would love to hear from you. Interviews are confidential and will discuss concepts relevant to policy capacity, performance and accountability frameworks and social policy making. Interviewees will be invited to describe how their environment and administrative imperatives interact with their policy work and how they feel best supported to work in ways that evidence policy capacity. As a participant in this study, you would receive an early summary of findings on which you may comment prior to publication.

If you feel you would like to participate in this study, you are invited to contact the project directly by emailing Anne Faulkner at [email protected] to discuss. Interviews will be between 30-60 minutes and participant confidentiality is a priority.

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