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Agency report cards: Health, A-G’s, Veterans’ Affairs review

The presence of skilled and committed staff is a common theme across five Australian Public Service Commission capability reviews, published today. But there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially at the Department of Health which rated poorly for nine of ten capabilities.

The reviews help chart the way ahead for the three departments and two agencies they concern by providing valuable outside perspectives on their strengths and weaknesses. It is now up to their respective leadership teams to implement them, along with everything else on their plates.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Attorney-General’s Department both rate as “strong” in one capability and “well-placed” for five. IP Australia is “well-placed” in five capabilities, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in three, but neither scored the elusive top rating for any of the ten competencies.

While noting strong individual capability among Health’s highly motivated, committed and proud staff, as well as “rich data repositories” and a good track record of delivering on the reforms and initiatives it has been tasked with, the capability review team found the colossal department needs nothing short of “transformational change”:

“The department takes pride in its record of delivery, with 94 per cent of key performance indicators reported as met in its annual report. However, in the context of shifting roles and relationships in the federal health system, combined with a policy of smaller government, it is highly feasible in the future that the department will be less engaged in service delivery and more in health-system strategy. This will require a shift in the department’s capability profile and in the way people work together.”

The review team says Health needs to improve its “organisational culture and people leadership” in light of overworked senior staff, high rates of bullying, a focus on individual rather than collective achievement, and an overly “hierarchical and siloed” structure, despite the efforts of former secretary Jane Halton to change that. While Health staff report being “intrinsically motivated by their roles and the nature of their work”, the reviewers were seriously concerned with how little focus their leaders place on letting them know they are valued.

Health also needs to “develop a high-level organisational and policy strategic capability” and urgently fix “inadequate governance arrangements and delivery frameworks”, according to the review, which includes a point-by-point initial response from new secretary Martin Bowles. A “culture that appropriately embraces and manages risks within defined tolerances” is also called for, as well as more “purposeful engagement and partnership with external stakeholders”.

Rating descriptors

D Health ratings

Veterans’ Affairs needs to get with times

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs capability review also notes the strong commitment of passionate staff members, who really care about the people they serve, but warns that “the environment in which DVA operates has changed at a much faster pace than the speed with which the department has allowed itself to change”.

Most urgent for DVA is to simplify and streamline its complicated and increasingly ineffective governance arrangements, modernise its “disjointed, inconsistent and slow” operational structures — including through more outsourcing — and not only replace its outdated ICT systems, but also link this vital piece of infrastructure more tightly to current and future business plans.

The Veterans’ Affairs leadership team is also strongly advised to address the effects of an old-fashioned culture and fragmented organisational structure on its thinly spread workforce:

“In the opinion of the review team DVA leadership should increase their visibility to staff, particularly in the regions, and better communicate the department’s priorities, the need for change, and improved ways of working. The leadership needs to be open, facilitate two-way communication between themselves and staff, and draw on the insights from the department’s technically skilled and experienced staff in decision-making.

“Indeed, the review team was struck by how many operational staff, as a consequence of DVA’s fragmented delivery model, are disconnected from the department, work in isolation as opposed to in teams and can, as a consequence, feel under-valued. Many operational staff in the state/territory and regional offices mentioned there is often little appreciation of what a colleague in an adjacent workstation is doing. Indeed, one staff member commented to the review team that their work in DVA is ‘so interlinked, yet so removed’.

“Such a siloed and rules-bound culture means that opportunities for improvement are lost, agility is forsaken, risks are exaggerated in the absence of a broader perspective, and motivation to support veterans and their families can be hard to sustain.”

The review team also says DVA employees try so hard to do a good job that they sometimes reduce overall consistency and quality of service delivery:

“Perversely, prompt access to service may also be denied at times by virtue of an excessive aversion to risk grounded in fear of giving offence to the veteran community; and not being sufficiently well equipped to communicate fair decisions to clients when the outcomes under legislation do not meet client expectations.

“Indeed, genuine client service should not be confused with acquiescence to every demand. SES and middle management need to lead staff to strive for greater efficiency and effectiveness for their clients, by being as consistent and clear about their decisions as they are in their commitment to client service.”

The third priority for the department should be on “efforts to formulate effective strategy”, which the reviewers say has proven problematic in recent times, despite a clear understanding of DVA’s mission. According to the review:

“A more fulsome understanding of the changing environment and the different needs of the contemporary veteran is emerging within the department, but DVA is yet to articulate how it will redesign its business in response.

“Indeed, what strategic thinking and policy development occurs within DVA seems often ad hoc and silo bound. Insights are not usually shared or actively sought across the department and subsequent service offerings are seen as disjointed and at times appear to overlap or allow for gaps.

“It is notable that the functional area responsible for defining the strategic framework and bringing the client’s perspective to bear in service design is comparatively under-resourced given the imperative for major reform.

“In short, the review team’s view is that on the current trajectory the department will continue to struggle to formulate a tangible roadmap.”

DVA ratings

On track (mostly): IP Australia, A-G’s, ABS

The capability reviews for IP Australia, A-G’s and the ABS found plenty to improve on as well, but showed the organisations are currently on a more solid footing than either Health or DVA.

IP Australia was found to be delivering on its core objectives, but to really excel, it was advised to:

  1. Clarify its purpose and value proposition;
  2. Develop greater connection across the APS;
  3. Develop a more transparent, consistent and engaging approach to leadership; and
  4. Make its systems and processes more robust and transparent.

With its slightly odd new responsibility for the arts, Attorney-General George Brandis’ personal bureaucracy was told it should “continue to monitor and position itself for external changes and exercise strong organisational stewardship to build capability”, and given a long list of ways to do so:

  • Work across its authorising environment to clarify its multiple roles and take on a greater role for leadership of the APS legal profession;
  • Become a stronger APS collaborator;
  • Refine its governance model;
  • Help establish a more integrated portfolio;
  • Strengthen internal connectedness;
  • Develop more consistent external engagement;
  • Improve its use of data, evaluation and knowledge management;
  • Continue to evolve its workforce planning practices; and
  • Further build on its foresight capability.

Finally, the Bureau of Statistics was told it could “ease off a little on the independence” and stop being so narrow and conservative in how it views its responsibilities under legislation. With an increasing volume of data flooding the public service, the reviewers say their assessment process couldn’t have come at a better time, and focus on how to maximise the success of a transformation process that is well underway:

“It is the review team’s view that the ABS is at a crossroads. Will its planned transformation focus on an enhanced status quo, limited to improved infrastructure and business processes? Or will it achieve its intent to move to a newly transformed agency that more fully addresses the challenges of its changing environment as a more open, engaged partner in delivering high-quality information for policymaking?”

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.