NSW Premier’s Priorities: good leadership helps prevent perverse outcomes, says William Murphy

By David Donaldson

Tuesday July 28, 2020


The NSW Premier’s Priorities have led to improvements on difficult social problems and encouraged more collaboration in the public sector, believes William Murphy, who previously oversaw the program.

There are a lot of social issues governments struggle to make progress on.

Often the solutions are complicated and require the input of a range of stakeholders. Without someone to coordinate it all, the problem can fall between the cracks.

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William Murphy
William Murphy

One of the solutions to this has been setting clear targets for a small list of key problems that require collaboration across government, and then giving it high-level political endorsement.

It worked well in New Zealand with the Better Public Service Results program, and has been a focus in New South Wales with the Premier’s Priorities since 2015.

After winning the election that year, then-premier Mike Baird published a set of 12 premier’s priorities. In 2019 Gladys Berejiklian replaced them with a new list of 14 goals (listed at the end of this article).

Each priority has a headline goal, which is supported by one or more quantitative targets.

Each premier’s priority has a lead agency and minister responsible for achieving the performance target, but generally problems are chosen for their cross-agency nature, requiring different parts of government to work together.

The whole program is overseen by the Premier’s Implementation Unit, which was established within the Department of Premier and Cabinet in 2015. The PIU supports agencies to measure and monitor performance, make progress toward the targets, and report progress to the premier, key ministers and the public.

The Mandarin recently spoke to William Murphy, who was executive director at the Premier’s Implementation Unit from 2015 to 2019.

“If I reflect on my time with the previous set of premier’s priorities, they were all successful I think, in that they managed to change the thinking about how we tackle some complex public policy metrics,” says Murphy, now deputy secretary at the Department of Customer Service.

“In terms of their key metrics, they all made progress. Some of them delivered on their targets, which was fantastic, and those targets were ambitious.”

READ MORE: ‘Known limitations’ in NSW premier’s priorities

Targets: a double-edged sword

The key to making progress on the priorities is having clear numerical targets, “which as a single measurable point is quite an easy mechanism for galvanising people around that objective”, he tells The Mandarin.

It makes clear what the different agencies are working towards, and encourages creativity in coming up with solutions.

But targets are also tricky to get right. It’s easy for implementers to become more focused on hitting the KPI than making meaningful change, and measurement problems are common.

The NSW Auditor General found there were “known limitations” in the first set of premier’s priorities. For example, the target of reaching 61,000 housing completions on average per year used data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that did not include housing demolitions, so it did not give an overall picture of additional available housing.

The target to reduce the proportion of domestic violence perpetrators reoffending by 25% by 2021 was also problematic, as reaching the target could occur through a reduction in reoffending relative to offending, or by an increase in offending compared to reoffending.

Leadership is key to addressing some of these problems, Murphy argues.

“The premier had always been clear, and we’d always been clear, that it was not about hitting the target and missing the point,” he explains.

“With targets, there’s always a concern that you might take some shortcut that shifts the KPI but doesn’t really deliver on the intention. That was not going to happen on the premier’s priorities because there was always the intention that the meaningful outcome was delivered.

“And that could be measured by a movement in the target, which is great, but even if that didn’t happen, as long as the meaning of the thing was delivered.”

One “very complex area” with great progress was the target to decrease the percentage of children and young people re-reported as being at risk of significant harm by 15% by 2020, he says.

“A lot of people were concerned the way that was measured … that using that single measure might hide the complexity of that challenge, and some of the dimensions of what might make a difference to kids in that situation.”

But the child protection system really bought in to the idea that while the target was a useful measure to galvanise action, “what’s really important is that the outcome for those kids is improved”.

“And that’s what was delivered, which also happened to deliver on meeting that target, which was fantastic.”

This highlights how important it is to choose a goal that both public servants and the community sees as important.

“The key to delivering on those things is that the outcomes are described not as measures or movements in the indicator, but as a change that is meaningful for people and communities that are involved,” Murphy believes.

“So while that premier’s priority was a reduction of 15%, if you had a look at the premier’s priority website, the way that was talked about was always about the numbers of kids that didn’t come back into the child protection system once they’d left it.

“That was the goal, to restore families, and to make sure those kids are safe. That was the unifying device really that wrapped everybody around that goal and got that forward movement. And you saw the same thing happen in lots of those premier’s priorities.”

READ MORE: Know your customer and what good service means to them: what William Murphy has learned from the best customer service organisations


Collaboration has been a key part of the premier’s priorities.

While the auditor general’s report was critical on some measurement issues, it found the Premier’s Implementation Unit to be effective, especially when it came to encouraging collaboration.

“Almost all” agencies involved agreed the unit’s collaborative approach to problem-solving helped break down silos and bring agencies together.

“The attention of the premier and other senior ministers provides agencies with the necessary impetus to put resources into collaboratively solving problems that may be the responsibility of just one agency,” the report reads.

“The PIU acts as the premier’s representative, encouraging agencies to solve problems together and facilitating cross‑agency collaboration.”

Murphy points to the example of reducing litter. The Environment Protection Authority had long been trying to make improvements itself, but realised they could do much more with the help of other agencies.

One initiative was the introduction of a container return scheme, which Murphy says “has gone exceptionally well and completely smashed the reducing litter goal in NSW, it’s been great”.

“When the environment department was looking to bring that scheme in, getting that up and running quickly required a lot of collaboration and support from other agencies. For example, the transport portfolio using its facilities to be the home for some of the collection points.

“Or working with schools around how they could be part of the program with kids collecting containers through their families and local communities. Schools would benefit and more litter could be taken out of the system and put into recycling.”

Another case he points to was reducing childhood obesity.

“While NSW Health owned the delivery of that premier’s priority, the partnership they formed with Education to get healthy school canteen menus into play as part of delivering on that premier’s priority was a great partnership.”

It has driven a shift in mindset towards more collaboration across the public sector, says Murphy.

“I think it was a really good thing for government to see that collaboration across agency silos on these common goals. It doesn’t take much before people start to say, ‘I may not have a premier’s priority, but you know what? I could get some help on whatever my business is by partnering with other agencies’.

“You start to really drive that collaboration across government. It really helps all public services to be more effective.”

READ MORE: Sharing responsibility and success: NZ’s Better Public Service Results

The 14 Premier’s Priorities

The current premier’s priorities are:

  1. Bumping up education results for children: Increase the proportion of public school students in the top two NAPLAN bands (or equivalent) for literacy and numeracy by 15% by 2023, including through a state-wide rollout of Bump it Up.
  2. Increase the number of Aboriginal young people reaching their learning potential: Increase the proportion of Aboriginal students attaining Year 12 by 50% by 2023, while maintaining their cultural identity.
  3. Protecting our most vulnerable children: Decrease the proportion of children and young people re-reported at risk of significant harm by 20% by 2023.
  4. Increasing permanency for children in out-of-home care: Double the number of children in safe and permanent homes by 2023 for children in, or at risk of entering, out-of-home care.
  5. Reducing domestic violence reoffending: Reduce the number of domestic violence reoffenders by 25% by 2023.
  6. Reducing recidivism in the prison population: Reduce adult reoffending following release from prison by 5% by 2023.
  7. Reducing homelessness: Reduce street homelessness across NSW by 50% by 2025.
  8. Improving service levels in hospitals: 100% of all triage category 1, 95% of triage category 2 and 85% of triage category 3 patients commencing treatment on time by 2023.
  9. Improving outpatient and community care: Reduce preventable hospital visits by 5% through to 2023 by caring for people in the community.
  10. Towards zero suicides: Reduce the rate of suicide deaths in NSW by 20% by 2023.
  11. Greener public spaces: Increase the proportion of homes in urban areas within 10 minutes’ walk of quality green, open and public space by 10% by 2023.
  12. Greening our city: Increase the tree canopy and green cover across Greater Sydney by planting 1 million trees by 2022.
  13. Government made easy: Increase the number of government services where the citizens of NSW only need to “tell us once” by 2023.
  14. World class public service: Implement best practice productivity and digital capability in the NSW public sector; and drive public sector diversity through:
    -50% of senior leadership roles held by women.
    -Increase the number of Aboriginal people in senior leadership roles.
    -5.6% of government sector roles held by people with a disability by 2025.

You can track progress on the priorities here.

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