Opinion: Why Australia’s governments need corporate memories

By Anne Cathrine Linchausen

Wednesday February 3, 2021

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When David Thodey’s highly anticipated Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) was released in December 2019, the country was as the beginning of what would be one of the worst bushfire seasons in history. Fast forward three months and we were grappling with COVID-19. The year rolled on, the Australian government worked at speed and focused on adapting and responding to the circumstances, making fast and focused decisions, and building or redeploying teams to execute on plans. The private sector also responded quickly. The financial services sector worked out how they could best insulate customers from financial devastation, while employees worked from home and systems and processes were stress tested.

So, back to the David Thodey Review. Anecdotally, senior bureaucrats were looking forward to the focus that the review would bring and the recommendations to ensure that the APS is fit for purpose for the decades ahead. Given that the Thodey APS Review was the most substantive enquiry since the Coombs Royal Commission of 1976, it was no surprise that the report was filled with recommendations about digital capability and transformation. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take a clear-eyed view of the way the public sector functions, and how it might evolve to effectively support Australians for decades to come. And so is COVID-19.

We often criticise government for operating ‘too slowly’, but the truth is we want government to be careful and measured when making substantial change. In many cases we want government to lead, but it is also vital that it is able to respond to changes in the private sector and community. It’s worth noting that government cannot always be leading change, because it needs to dedicate time to reviewing and responding to what is in front of them. Take for example, the Australian video games sector, which regularly briefs the federal government because it sees issues that are happening from a technical perspective well before the government will understand the broader impact – such as classification or user-generated content. As such, government needs to work at a pace where it can take on a broad range of views from different industries, and to govern and reflect the broadest number of people in the best way possible.

While it is important that government moves at a considered pace, it also needs to demonstrate the capacity to move quickly in a state of emergency, as has been required through the COVID-19 global pandemic. The establishment of the COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board and the redeployment of public servants to ensure the ability to manufacture and provide access to PPE, will be remembered in Australia’s history as one of the most successful responses to a national emergency. It’s worth noting there is a capacity for government to move quickly when necessary.

One key issue with people working quickly across distributed teams and locations is the ability to access corporate knowledge. Often, we hear about corporate memory and the accumulation of knowledge, but what about upholding government memory? Most important decisions for boards are buried in board papers, voted on, or based on a certain unknown rationale. Due to the immediate nature of responding quickly in a crisis, or managing leadership and team changes, the discipline and ability to record documents, as well as capture and share how key decisions were executed, is important now and in the future. This documented knowledge base provides key insights, that allows us to review and learn from both the corporate and government ‘brains trust’.

The private sector is currently looking at how government will be different in 2021. There needs to be a line of history that shows what decisions are being made, why and when, rather than just a conversation happening in a board room or written down on a scratch piece of paper. Boards are no longer sitting in the same office, which affects their ability to access the same information. Especially with COVID-19, there needs to be a single source of truth.

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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
8 months ago

And your recommendation is….?, Anne Linchausen.

I agree that the public service needs a corporate memory, more so than any private corporation, because the functions of even a small portfolio affect the spectrum of Australian society. But the advice to maintain corporate memory runs headfirst into what appears to be a reflexive, deeply entrenched policy strategy to outsource functions to the private sector. NDIS is only the latest example, robodebt,another, the Commonwealth Employment Service was an earlier.

In principle outsourcing routine functions can be a thoroughly respectable strategy, and it can help to make functions more sensitive to the needs of local clients. But it requires a strong locus of excellence at the centre to maintain purpose, ensure probity, enforce disciplined contract administration, curate and disseminate technical knowledge and adjust strategy in response to results obtained. These coordinating functions cost money and high-order public administration skills.

It would be possible to trace a lineage from the incalculable damage that Robodebt has done to the reputation of the public service (and government generally) back to the destruction of the Commonwealth Employment Service. With no trustworthy centre of excellence in easing people into jobs, the public service fell back onto computers.

Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
8 months ago

Hullo Anne Linchausen

My conclusion is that, given the outsourcing mindset that now prevails, your advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.

There is no simple or single remedy, but one recommendation would be for the corporate sector to pursue vigorously the activity described in your final para, to press upon government the need to strengthen its knowledge-retention capacity. There are large economies of scale in generating and storing and disseminating technical knowledge – e.g. by CSIRO, BOM, individual line agencies. If government does not do this on behalf of all society, every business must invest in its own.

Building knowledge capacity/corporate memory ought to be a non-partisan activity, so it ought to be a cause that big and small business can endorse. So I encourage you to continue “looking at how government will be different in 2021” and assemble a powerful business coalition in support. The present federal government would take more notice of that than pressure from Labor, the unions or the intelligentsia.