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Banks: Australian public sector at pivot point

The former head of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, believes that the public sector in Australia is at a pivot point, with both spending and regulation about to decrease after decades of expansion. He says the implications for the public sector are profound.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be business as usual again,” he said. “I hear this expression a lot — ‘the new normal’. I’m not sure what’s new and I’m not sure what’s normal but in the future I think it’s going to be governments doing less, but doing it better.”

Gary Banks
Gary Banks

Analytical and facilitation skills are going to be vital for “less but better” public administration, Banks believes, as service delivery is increasingly contracted out to the not for profit or private sector.

“We’ve been learning that some of these bodies, with the right contractual arrangements, are better placed to deliver those services,” said Banks. “It’s a change in role (for the public sector) and it’s a challenge, but ultimately it’s a more interesting job because it’s about designing programs to deliver services and managing relationships, rather than being in the sausage factory churning out sausages every day.”

Unlike other schools of government and business, ANZSOG is a creature of government. It was set up by the Australian and New Zealand governments in 2002 as a fit-for-purpose institution that would meet the needs of government in the area of executive education.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world — including in other federal systems,” said Banks. “Before I came I wasn’t sure how it would work, because it is so networked and has so many players — 10 governments and 16 universities. It actually works incredibly well. It’s taken some of the strengths of a federation in terms of being able to use different institutions and different academics to give people a local university to identify with and do electives, but come together on core subjects where it matters and spend some time together.”

With six of the 12 board members representing government members, the relationship with government is strong.

“A lot of what we do is responding to government’s perceptions of what they need,” he said. “We have five board meetings a year and there is an opportunity there and in between time to communicate to us how they see things going and what the priorities are. In addition we have various informal connections and visits and opportunities to talk to government. Because of the courses we’re running, we’re in constant touch with them anyway.”

One of the reasons Banks made the move to his current position was that from his vantage point in Canberra he saw the public service was de-skilling in the very areas that he considered were becoming more and more important.

“I was worried,” he said. “I saw, as budgets were cut — the death of a thousand cuts — the areas that tended to be most affected were the longer-term, strategic or research-related areas. That old saying: ‘the urgent driving out the important’.

“If you talk to very senior public servants and you ask them about the analytical firepower of their departments they tend to look at the ground a bit and then finally admit they’re not what they used to be. I think we’ve got to rebuild that if we’re going to meet these sorts of challenges.”

As a former agency head, Banks says he “completely understands” the current budgetary pressures, but he thinks it is really important at times like this when staff are being shed that agencies also invest in their best people and their up and comers.

“I say that for two reasons,” he explained. “One is obviously to maintain the performance of a diminished organisation in terms of its numbers. You need higher productivity and higher quality in the group that is still there. And secondly, I think it’s a very positive signal to the other members of the organisation that there’s an investment in management and leadership capability. It’s a leading indicator for people that staying in the public service is a good thing to do because it’s got a future and it’s investing in its own future.”

 

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.