Victorian Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings led the charge early, laying out his aims for government integrity agencies and reaffirming his commitment to giving them the powers they need to restore confidence in government and public sector policy and delivery. With minority governments increasingly the norm across Australia, Jennings said the public were showing their alienation from government.
The key planks of restoring confidence, he said, were the government’s agenda of transparency and accountability. They include expanding the role of the Freedom of Information commissioner to cover more public access issues including the authority to review department decisions, giving the auditor-general powers to follow the dollar into private sector beneficiaries, and reforming corruption watchdog restrictions that inhibit IBAC’s ability to instigate corruption investigations.
Additionally, Jennings has introduced legislation to create Infrastructure Victoria — intended to improve trust in government infrastructure planning, following protracted controversy over the East West Link.
Chris Eccles, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, went further after his address on leadership from the centre. Eccles, whose last position was head of the NSW premier’s department, has a unique perspective into how bad behaviour has impacted both NSW and Victoria where VPS bureaucrats are daily reading the transcripts of Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission hearings into the Department of Education and VicRoads:
“I thought when I left NSW that would I leave behind a preoccupation with public behaviour. It’s genuinely not a criticism of NSW, because I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. But one of the closest working relationships I had was with the commissioner of ICAC and that was through necessity. It was such a feature of the operating environment and had been for some time.
“The way that we addressed the transition of 16 years of a Labor government, where to be perfectly honest, by the end of that period, we had a traumatised public service … traumatised by bad behaviour of certain members of the government. The way we were able to deal with that deeply traumatised public service was to re-create the public service commission. It had been deconstructed. I worked with the public service commissioner at the beginning on the values, reinforcing the importance of the values, integrity, respectfulness. It was critical.
“We [in the VPS] shouldn’t be complacent. Values, values, values. You can’t repeat it too frequently. The way this inappropriate behaviour is presented in Victoria is very different in NSW, but the response should be the same, that is to emphasise the importance of the values of the public service. To legitimise those who are fearless enough to call out and to hold publically their adherence to the values in describing the bad behaviour.”
But it’s not just values and dealing with bad behaviour that Victoria aims to get back out in front. Eccles says the government and DPC have taken up the challenge of recognising disadvantage:
“Good governments are defined by their treatment of the most disadvantaged. I’m entirely certain this government has that as a priority. What it doesn’t have at the moment is an overarching framework for social policy. And I think this is acknowledged by the government.
“That’s one that we at DPC are, in association with our colleague departments, determined to come up with an overaching social policy framework which might then provide with a more systemic approach to how you invest to address those disadvantages.”
Eccles says he’s structured DPC as a metaphor for the entire public service, based on the government’s own priorities, with clear lines of sight for ministers to their respective portfolios: “The organisation design was motivated by the dominant themes of your client, the premier and cabinet, and efficiency of being able to transact business between the public service department and the special minister of state.”
The appointment of a special minister of state with broad portfolio responsibilities over watchdog agencies, public sector reform and ICT was an Australian first, Eccles added. Although the title has existed before, never has it had such breadth of responsibility in the hands of a senior government member, and it’s given them significant confidence — along with the budgetary support — to do more with the Victorian Public Sector Commission and the Secretaries Board to examine capability deficits.
Eccles says it starts with recruiting more people with a diverse perspective: “How many engineers do DPC employ? How many people have contemporary principles of design thinking? Not many. I think we benefit from diversity of perspectives and diversity of expertise within our department so we don’t just echo groupthink. With apologies to lapsed lawyers, there is a danger in just recruiting in your own image, or recruiting to a pattern of thinking. The best way of doing that is to switch it up.”
Similarly, having a minister looking at ICT in the public sector gives them the courage to look at one of the key enablers and attractions for young people to the workplace — at least if there was deep investment in technology in the VPS, which Eccles admitted there hasn’t been and needs to be.
On the upgrade agenda is both mobile technology — unshackling public servants from their physical workplaces and enabling them to interact more frequently with the communities they serve — and re-examining currently prohibitions on technology: “That’s grounded in an absence of trust. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of thinking or respectful way of thinking about it. We need to deconstruct some of the overly risk-averse approach to what we can access and also get a whole bunch of mobile technology.”
Eccles also answered what almost every public servant wanted to know. What will it be like working with the new premier Dan Andrews?
“Every indication is he will model … on what I’ve described it as the ‘executive chair’. Setting the responsibility for strategic goals and the formation of the key strategic relationships. But with the undoubted ability to dive into the detail. I remember watching him in front of his first sceptical audience, it was the [Business Council of Australia]. His command of the [business] language, in front of an audience that was sceptical, was deeply impressive.”