Policy proof: Mrdak on Infrastructure’s evaluation renaissance

It’s not good enough to simply enact the policies of government and assume it’s all going according to plan, says one department head. Public servants need to make sure policies aren’t just good on paper by rediscovering the lost art of evaluation.

Evaluation is a scary word that conjures up images of scathing past audits for a lot of public servants. But it wasn’t always that way, according to Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary Mike Mrdak.

Speaking to the Canberra Evaluation Forum yesterday about his efforts over the past five years trying to build a new culture of “evaluative thinking”, Mrdak said the difference between internal evaluation and external auditing had become lost on some sections of the department. Evaluation had been in decline right across the Australian Public Service since around the dawn of the millennium.

“Up until the turn of the last century … we had a very strong, centralised focus on evaluation through the Department of Finance, and the decision to effectively devolve responsibility for that and to no longer provide resourcing for that function … has become a great risk and cost to the Australian Public Service,” Mrdak told the CEF, a group formed by Finance in 1990 that spun off as a not-for-profit and was absorbed into the Institute for Public Administration Australia’s ACT Branch in 2013.

In the secretary’s view, one result of decentralising responsibility for evaluation was a loss of “enthusiasm and motivation” across the service. “And I think as a result, evaluation fell quickly across the APS among competing priorities, and with it went … much of the cultural thinking and the skills to be able to conduct, plan and manage evaluations.” It was in this context that Mrdak, shortly after becoming departmental head in 2009, set out to put evaluation front and centre in the minds of his staff.

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