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Codify relationship with ministerial staffers: Blacher

Victoria’s new government should look at codifying the relationship between ministerial staffers and public servants, argues the former secretary of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

“Advisers are here to stay, so you’ve got to make it work,” Yehudi Blacher told The Mandarin in an interview canvassing his long career. Blacher was recently awarded an Institute of Public Administration Australia national fellowship.

As a departmental head in the Victorian public service and deputy secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet before that, Blacher has dealt with his fair share of ministerial advisers. During his public service career, he saw government change hands four times and at one stage answered to eight ministers.

Codification of the relationship may help mollify some of the irritation many public servants feel at the role of overzealous “teenagers” in policy-making, Blacher suggests. “The reality is that it’s a complex triangle — the minister, the minister’s office and the department,” he said.

“I think that relationship could be more clearly defined than is currently the case. Whether codification needs to be in the form of legislation, I’m not entirely sure. At a minimum what is needed is a framework authorised by the premier which better defines the role of advisers vis-à-vis both accountability to their ministers and the scope of their relationships with departments. The incoming Victorian government would do well to spend a bit of time thinking about this issue.”

Blacher has had a distinguished career, having led the Department for Victorian Communities and its successor, the Department of Planning and Community Development, for nine years. For two years he was deputy secretary at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and before that director of Child and Family Services in the Department of Human Services for three years. From 1991 to 1996 he was director of the Office of Local Government, where he was tasked with designing the process to restructure Victoria’s local council system.

Reflecting on the machinery of government changes during his time at the top of the bureaucracy — a process re-started last week when the incoming Andrews government announced a round of departmental restructures — Blacher remembers a time when there were far more departments than today.

“When Jeff Kennett came in he moved from over 20 departments down to eight through grouping a whole lot of like functions,” he said.

“There was a lot of duplication between different departments in what they did, and there were very significant back of house, as well as front of house, efficiencies that were achieved. In addition it made sense to group like functions together rather than thinking about them as discrete silos operating in isolation of each other.”

Although it’s now “de rigueur” to group like functions together, he says, “Victoria was very much a pathfinder in this approach to thinking about machinery of government arrangements”.

“Some of it has been successful, some of it less so, but the rationale for bringing together, for example, community services, public housing, disability services and a number of the mental health functions into a single agency makes a lot of sense because often the clients are the same.”

One thing Blacher learned in his long public service career is that when undertaking reform “you need to have a very clear process roadmap that’s consistent with the electoral timeframe of the government” — something that proved important when he was put in charge of reforming local government, which included a series of highly contentious council amalgamations.

‘Hold your nerve’ on big reform

In Victoria, there had been several previous attempts to reform local government going back to the early 20th century. The attempt by the Cain government failed in part “because it was too protracted”, Blacher says.

“Initially, I didn’t think it could happen in one term of government without a whole series of interventions which I doubted the government of the day would be prepared to do. But when it was put to them, they were clear about the need to ‘do it hard and do it fast’.” In the end, the changes were completed in one term of government, ensuring their sustainability despite widespread controversy.

Blacher was also responsible for designing a program of reforms to Victoria’s child and family services system — another sensitive area. This process was less successful in part because the changes were only partially completed during the second Kennett term and were stopped when the Bracks government was elected.

When it comes to big reforms, “you’ve just got to hold your nerve”, he explains. “Not only do you get organised interests that push back but, both in the local government and DHS reforms, some of those attacks became quite personal. As a public servant, when you come under personal attacks, it’s actually a very difficult environment in which to respond.

“You need strong support from ministers and the head of government. That was there by virtue of both active encouragement but also no active discouragement when things got tough.”

[pullquote] “You need to be able to co-opt as many of your possible opponents, as well as people who have influence …” [/pullquote]

It’s important to have a clear basis from which you can credibly make the case for the changes, he argues. “You need to be able to co-opt as many of your possible opponents, as well as people who have influence and a deep knowledge of the sector you’re reforming. That’s why the policy framework within which you’re operating and the rationale is so important,” he said.

“Those both supporting and opposing change are entitled to have their views heard, and whilst you’ve got to be clear about where you want to go, you also have to respect the views of others about how to get there.

“The judgment about whether people are pushing self-serving interests or whether they’re thinking about the best for the system is one for which there are no rules. You’ve just got to make that judgement in the circumstances and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.”

Asked about what changes he would like to see in the public service, Blacher argues there’s been too much movement away from specialists to generalists.

“On one level that’s been good, particularly for people who have good minds and can get their heads around different issues, but I suspect public services of the future are going to have to move back to bringing specialists back in areas where there isn’t the depth that there needs to be,” he said.

“Public services in the future are going to be relatively smaller, and there are certain skills that these departments are going to need to develop in greater depth than is currently the case. I think there’s been a diminution of skills in strategy formulation and policy development. There are specialist skills around budget management.

“Performance management around agencies is not as strong as it needs to be, and it’s often done by the seat of the pants. We definitely need much stronger project management capabilities across the board, from conceptualisation to procurement accountability and evaluation, and much stronger program design skills.”

He also thinks public services don’t do professional development as well as they should, and that more attention should be given to ensuring that staff can demonstrate particular capabilities and skill sets as a minimum requirement for appointments to middle and senior management roles.

Creating a new department from scratch

While many would see creating a new department of state as a daunting task, Blacher describes his experience of setting up the Bracks government’s Department for Victorian Communities in 2002 as “fascinating”. “Because unlike minor machinery of government changes, this was a new department starting from nothing,” he said. “It comprised all the community development portfolios extracted from every other department around government and it brought them all together into a single agency.”

Setting up the department was a huge undertaking. Blacher was initially given one floor in a high rise and a core staff to bring it all together. By the time it was fully formed, it had several hundred staff, and a budget of over $1 billion.

Blacher thinks one of the biggest tasks in creating any new agency is the need to create a narrative which reflects the government’s priorities and provides a focus with which staff can identify. At the time he was bringing people together from nine other departments, each of which had its own organisational culture, its own way of doing things.

“It was a bit of an experiment,” he said, “so while there were core functions that needed to continue, it was really in part an attempt to think about different ways of doing government.

[pullquote] “It was a very strong ethos of collaborating with other agencies, because we had a lot of programs and a lot of portfolios.” [/pullquote]

“I was keen that in running our corporate services we did it in partnership with other departments, rather than having stand-alone services. Our finance and payroll functions were in conjunction with one department and our HR function was off the platforms of another department, so it was a way of demonstrating at the time — this is going back 12 years — a different way of thinking about agencies. It was a very strong ethos of collaborating with other agencies, because we had a lot of programs and a lot of portfolios. I had eight ministers.

“I was always conscious that it probably was not going to have a long life, because it very much reflected the second Bracks government and so was likely to be subject to changing policy priorities. Unlike say a health function, which the state government is always going to have, these sorts of departments will always come and go.”

The agency was also responsible for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, which “was a different sort of challenge” because that was a major event with a lot of infrastructure to be delivered with an immovable deadline.

“Apart from the Commonwealth Games, we didn’t have a very large budget compared with other departments. So everything we needed to do was done with other agencies, other departments or through community organisations.

“Collaborating within and between departments and sectors outside government has now become a core expectation for the way in which departments should operate. But 12 years ago this approach was very much at the margins of thinking about public management practice. Part of the rationale for the Department for Victorian Communities, at least in my mind, was to demonstrate how you could collaborate and create public value in terms of the various outcomes that you were looking to achieve.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.