Should public servants count their efforts in six-minute blocks?

By David Donaldson

Thursday March 24, 2016

It can be difficult to know how much individual programs cost because public servants don’t count their minutes like lawyers and accountants do. Should the bureaucracy be looking at recording work in six-minute intervals?

Victoria’s secretary of the Department of Treasury and Finance is not so sure.

“We could start charging ministers for briefs we prepare,” joked David Martine at last week’s hearing of the parliamentary committee looking at the state’s post-2014 election machinery of government changes.

“I am not quite sure how well that would go down!”

The problem is that nobody can figure out exactly how much the MoG cost — different departments have used different means of assessing what is a direct cost of the change.

Based on information provided by departments, the committee’s interim report in January stated the MoG change had cost the state around $3 million to May 31, 2015. At the recent hearing, estimates of the final value were closer to $5 million.

” … we need to get better at how we specify what MoG costs are … ”

Where individuals are placed on a project full time it is easy to figure out how much it cost, but since public servants had to make MoG changes in addition to their regular work, nobody knows for sure how long was spent implementing the reforms.

Plus some non-personnel costs cannot be unambiguously attributed to MoG restructuring. For example, should the Department of Health and Human Services — which previously existed as two separate entities — count signage and website updates to show the agency’s new name as resulting from machinery of government costs, even though ageing signs may have needed to have been replaced regardless, as DHHS secretary Kym Peake argued?

What about structural changes made a year after the election — should they be included?

“It is quite clear that there is inconsistency in the categorisation of direct costs across departments,” Martine told the inquiry. “I do not think that is helpful.”

There is a need for a consistent framework across government, he said. “We need to get better at how we specify what MoG costs are.”

But he cautioned against getting carried away and overburdening agencies with recording requirements, noting that while the exact number was unclear, total machinery of government costs were around $5 million out of a budget of $55 billion.

Martine argued that the effort required to attribute each time block to a particular budget line would probably end up being counterproductive.

“I think the costs and the loss of productivity in requiring everyone in a bureaucracy to track their time would far outweigh the machinery of government costs. That is why most bureaucracies do not go down that path of time sheets, because we do not bill our key client for work we do, like a law firm, an accounting firm et cetera.”

He did suggest, however, that the public service could make greater use of qualitative evaluation in such circumstances.

“If you had a situation where there was a machinery of government change that was quite material, there might be something in the framework which requires that department in a qualitative sense to express some commentary around what the impact might have been on some of the staff and on the workload. It is a very hard thing to actually put a dollar figure on — very hard.”

Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles said greater use of qualitative data in evaluating service changes should be considered.

“You sometimes have to rely upon the experience of the individual,” he explained.

“If we accept that there can be a qualitative assessment of an outcome and that can be the lived experience of citizens and engaging with a particular service, if that becomes a legitimate form of accounting for service improvement, then I think we have to be a bit more sophisticated in the way we expect government to account for successful outcomes rather than just a unit that goes from A to B. The citizen’s experience through qualitative input back to government is one thing that I think we should explore in more detail.”

Eccles: MoGs make for good experience

Going through a machinery of government change is good for your career, thinks Eccles.

Speaking at the hearing, Eccles argued that having to confront issues of organisational structure enhanced public servants’ professional skills.

“The experience of staff in their engagement with machinery of government actually rounds out their role as a public servant, because they need to think in terms of structure, they need to think in terms of organisational design,” he said.

It also helps bring employees into contact with colleagues in different parts of the bureaucracy.

“It is a good discipline to socialise more broadly across departments, because it is not only the formal machinery of government changes that occur with election outcomes, but we are engaged in machinery of government changes frequently. To have people exposed to the best way in which to design parts of government to respond to priorities I think is a good thing,” he explained.

The final reporting date for the inquiry is May 1.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week

Get Premium Today