Halton: get over the fear of failure or drown in red tape

By Stephen Easton

Thursday October 22, 2015

A report on internal red tape commissioned by federal mandarins has been completed and is being considered for public release, as federal public servants try to tackle the intense fear of failure that permeates government.

According to Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton, the “zero tolerance” attitude to risk cannot continue otherwise internal red tape will keep piling up as fast as bureaucrats can cut it back, particularly in the emerging paradigm of digital disruption.

The Australian Public Service Secretaries Board has received the report from an internal red tape review by Barbara Belcher, an official held in high regard on both sides of the aisle who retired in 2009 after 44 years serving mainly in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Belcher’s observations could well be valuable to state and territory public service heads, and its public release would also allow input from independent experts and, as a Department of Finance official pointed out in Senate Estimates on Tuesday, promote public understanding of what’s happening inside the APS.

Opposition Senator Katy Gallagher remarked in Tuesday’s Finance and Public Administration hearing that cutting red tape is one of those “never-ending” jobs for public servants. “Totally,” agreed Halton.

“It is going to be [a] challenge for public sector agencies … in this world of disruption, to balance sensible deregulation and reform against accountability, transparency, efficiency and the effective use of taxpayers’ funds,” remarked Gallagher, to Halton’s enthusiastic agreement.

“If you overlay disruption on a culture that says you have to manage risk to zero on absolutely everything, you will end up with more red tape than you can poke a stick at,” said the Finance boss.

That is where the new approach to risk, also a feature of internal reforms, comes into play.

“Part of the problem is that the public sector is never allowed to fail at anything,” observed Gallagher, who was ACT chief minister from mid-2011 to the end of last year.

Both agreed there needs to be more up-front acknowledgement that government programs have a risk of failure just like other endeavours, rather than typical government communications that over-promise when new projects are introduced and try to avoid shining a light on failures.

“It is going to require a big cultural change,” said Gallagher. “For example, if you look at all the annual reports that have recently been tabled, it is pretty hard to find an example in those of where something went wrong.

“But, knowing what I know, there definitely would have been something that went wrong in your department, Ms Halton, last financial year.

“The culture we have is not one that embraces that sort of thing — and I know that people would put those sorts of things in headlights if you did report them more openly.”

Renee Leon, secretary of the Department of Employment, made similar comments at a recent public administration conference. But Leon went further, suggesting departments should “remind ministers that things will go wrong” sometimes and support them to “lay the groundwork” for a greater acceptance of failure in their public speeches rather over-promising at the outset.

The Secretaries Board is “minded to pick up” Belcher’s recommendations, according to Halton’s first assistant secretary for accountability projects, Stephen Clively. He said Finance is still deciding how to deal with the report, and allocating responsibilities for parts of its advice that lie beyond the department’s purview.

He also said its public release was “under consideration” by the Secretaries Board via its subcommittee focused on transforming the APS, but suggested Finance had requested its release for “transparency [and] more importantly, for public understanding”.

A lot of internal red tape is imaginary in a sense, according to Halton, consisting of needlessly thorough processes that have been developed to ensure compliance with rules, but are not in fact mandatory.

Clively said public servants need to stop thinking of regulation as “the first way of meeting an objective” and explained that internal red tape reduction was part of the wider internal management reforms the department is leading.

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