Public sector reform could make Australia more resilient, report says

By Jackson Graham

October 19, 2021

A new report says the public service has reached 'dangerously low levels' of policy capability and recommend a swift and purposeful rebuild.
A new report says the public service has reached ‘dangerously low levels’ of policy capability and recommend a swift and purposeful rebuild. (Fyle/Adobe)

A new report has highlighted Australia’s lack of resilience in facing challenges it was unprepared for, such as the COVID-19, climate change and regional security risks. 

The National Resilience Project looked at three key attributes of a resilient society — shared awareness and goals, teamwork and collaboration, and preparation and mobilisation in a crisis — and found a “lack of resilience in all three areas”. 

The report makes recommendations on the public sector, energy security, the health system, economy and defence, among other areas. 

Co-authors John Blackburn, a retired air vice-marshal, and Anne Borzycki say the public service has reached “dangerously low levels” of policy capability and recommend a swift and purposeful rebuild. 

“Public service capability across policy, regulation and delivery needs to be a major focus of the thinking of those wanting to ‘build back better’,” the authors say. 

“Wise governments will call upon the experience of knowledgeable and skilled administrators to help them convert high principle and vaguely expressed policy directions into practical programs for change. 

“This requires the public service to be involved in the process of developing practical policy, not just implementing it.”

The pandemic has exposed “just in time” business models potentially weakening the “business” of public policy, the authors write. 

“It has raised questions about whether this aspect of private sector operations is appropriate to the public sector, given the government’s role as society’s ultimate risk manager and problem-solver,” the report states. 

“A degree of spare capacity or redundancy, which can all too easily be construed as “waste”, is a necessary aspect of any resilient system.” 

The report highlights that as Australia attempts to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic it must also prepare for future challenges. 

“A broader long-term vision for domestic manufacturing and trusted supply chains would prepare the ground for a more sustainable recovery, and better prepare the nation for the future,” the authors say. 

With the likelihood of climate change contributing to more compounding disasters, the report states a nationally coordinated disaster preparedness and mobilisation system should be front of mind for governments.  

The report also takes aim at a “lack of shared awareness and shared goals” in Australia and “limited honesty and directness” from some politicians about future challenges. 

“Political reactions are often too little, too late, and too short-sighted,” the authors write. “A complicating factor is that our federation structure may have been fit for purpose a century ago, but it cannot deal with the constellation of challenges we face today.” 

But the authors, who recommend Australia establish an independent national resilience institute, say making the nation more resilient is not beyond its capacity. 

“The actions we need to take are not beyond our ability to design and implement. We have considerable expertise and resources in this country,” they write. 


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