The relationship between ministers and public servants can be vastly improved through a few practical steps that aim to build a “positive risk culture” in government and clarify roles in the policy development process, argues Peter Shergold.
The animated ex-mandarin thinks project management skills need to be vastly improved in the public sector — that goes for state and territory bureaucrats too — and that departmental advice should be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
In a review that attempts to explain systemic factors that contribute to the failure of massive government programs, Shergold makes 28 recommendations that, if implemented, would significantly transform cabinet government in Australia.
Ministers need to take the lead on risk
Among his considered list of thought provoking observations, the former head of the APS suggests all departments and major agencies need a Chief Risk Officer at senior executive level.
Agencies should also “gauge their ministers’ appetites for risk on individual programs and across their portfolio, and reach agreement on how implementation challenges will be identified, accepted and managed within agreed resources”.
Major Cabinet proposals should always come with “a minister’s endorsed risk management plan” which has been run by the Prime Minister’s department and the Department of Finance, and made available to other cabinet ministers, he proposes.
The final element in “creating a positive risk culture” in government, according to the University of Western Sydney chancellor and respected public sector reform guru, is to consider the “cumulative impact” of government decisions in a bi-annual whole-of-government risk assessment for Cabinet. He suggests that’s another job for Finance.
Get with the program (management)
Public sector project management skills also need to be improved and applied to all programs, according to the report:
“Program and project management are too often seen as control activities based on templates and Gantt charts. They are actually creative processes.”
Shergold thinks the Australian Public Service Commission, which he once led, should buddy up with relevant industry associations and produce a set of standards for proficiency of public sector project management. Agencies would need to “support these staff through career development opportunities, continued education and participation in professional communities of practice”.
The report resurrects the idea of bringing together “tiger teams” of staff with specific skills from all over government to support big, high-risk projects. It also suggests senior executive selection criteria should place more importance on “project leadership” experience, and observes:
“For all projects and programs, there needs to be a clear understanding about who accepts end-to-end responsibility for managing implementation, wields delegated authority and where accountability resides.”
Shergold believes public service leaders need to vastly improve both the quality and the independence of the advice they give, and commit more of it to writing.
He also says “clear rules of engagement” are needed to improve working relationships between public servants and ministerial advisers. To illustrate what it looks like when this relationship goes awry, the report quotes Ian Hanger, the royal commissioner who picked over the Environment Department’s failed home insulation program.
“Ministers and their advisors must not, by subtle suggestion or otherwise, dictate what advice they receive.”
The highly respected former APS leader’s reform manifesto includes a reminder that good advice is factual and evidence-based, reflects multiple perspectives and considers various alternate views:
“On occasion the APS appropriately provides a range of options to government, but it must not be afraid of taking a position on what is regarded as the best path forward. Fortitude is required.”
To help public servants find the courage, Shergold also recommends more of their advice be kept under wraps.
Several public service heads complained publicly last year that a fear of FOI was constraining advice to ministers, leading to more oral discussions that are never recorded or the use of sticky notes which could easily disappear.
Shergold suggests clearing up the situation by making all “advice and opinion provided to support the deliberative processes of government policy formulation” exempt from FOI requests and argues:
“Such changes would apply to only a very small proportion of government information.”
That recommendation goes hand in hand with the demand for a better standard of advice, which secretaries must stand behind, and a new record keeping policy that clarifies “when and how records must be created” and ensures “records of deliberative discussions in all forms, including digital” are kept on file.
Shergold proposes APS commissioner John Lloyd direct agencies to put all “significant advice” to ministers in writing.
The reasoning for rolling back FOI is that a “free and uninhibited exchange of views between ministers and senior public servants” is vital to creating good public policy and requires “mutual trust and respect between both sides” which, in turn, “depends on arguments taking place in private”. Shergold writes:
“Where there is a risk of advice being made public, sensitive topics are less likely to be the subject of full and frank written briefing. This increases the risk that decisions will be made on partial information, feebly presented. It means that there will be an incomplete record of the decision-making process.”
While recommending the reach of FOI be reduced, the influential academic and business leader also notes good government relies on openness and transparency:
“There is room to further improve public access to information that is held by government. There is a strong public interest case for citizens being able to know the basis of decisions that affect their access to services. There is considerable value, too, in publishing as much publicly-collected data as possible and making it available to citizens to use and apply as they want through a ‘Creative Commons’ license.”
Practical ways to break down the public-private divide
Public services are regularly advised to cross-pollinate with the private and not-for-profit sectors, and Shergold’s report offers ways to move this agenda forward, too.
As well as supporting “career development opportunities” outside government, he proposes a new annual scholarship that would pay for 10 APS leaders to work on “an important project in the business or community sector” for up to a year.
A corresponding “highly prestigious” fellowship would cover 10 “exceptional leaders from the business, community and academic sectors” doing the opposite, working on government initiatives they find an exciting, important way to use their skills.
He also says departments should temporarily hire a few experts from outside the service for every big, high-priority project, and establish “program advisory groups” that always include external expertise. Finally:
“A Prime Minister’s Public Service Advisory Committee should be established that includes leaders from business and community organisations, to support the Australian Public Service Commissioner build a more open, collaborative and outward-looking public service.”