'Stop asking permission': advice from the red tape war cabinet

By Stephen Easton

March 24, 2016

Public servants need to change the culture of asking permission for every little thing, says the Department of Finance executive trying to strip out internal red tape. The challenge is doing so without making more in the process.

One way the federal bureaucracy can stop the spread of its overgrown jungle of internal regulation is to “stop asking for permission” for every little thing.

This was the advice of Department of Finance deputy secretary for governance and public service transformation, Stein Helgeby, who spoke at a forum on attempts to “quit the red tape habit” inside Commonwealth agencies.

“It will free us, and free management, and free your colleagues from doing things that really, often aren’t worth doing, or aren’t worth doing to the same degree as they’re being done now,” he said.

“And it will free them up to do what is worth doing: supporting programs, supporting policy, and delivering services on behalf of Australians.”

For anyone looking at the 134 recommendations of Barbara Belcher’s recent review of internal red tape and feeling daunted, or sceptical that it won’t just create more peripheral tasks, Helgeby offered a tip on where to start.

“Stop asking for permission to change something that really ought not to be there in the first place,” he said.

“That’s a mindset change; that’s the beginning of a cultural change, and I think if we can each do that a little bit each day, rather than spending our time on the 11 steps to move someone from one part of a building to another part of the building, we’d all be better off for it.”

“We’ve got to do something to address the clogging of the public sector arteries, and we’ve got to do something to address our culture.”

Host Virginia Haussegger suggested that might be “too much to ask” of public servants, but Helgeby said he hoped not, as it was very much in line with their new responsibilities under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act.

Secretaries accepted Belcher’s recommendations late last year, and decided they would just get on with all of them right away, according to Helgeby. The public servants with key roles in making them real are trying hard not to fall back into the old ways of working, members of the Institute for Public Administration Australia (ACT branch) were told at the forum on Monday.

Popcorn & stand-up meetings

The audience also heard about specific efforts to reduce internal red tape within the Australian Taxation Office and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The ATO’s head of corporate, Sue Sinclair, explained the agency had simplified its corporate processes significantly, and abolished a large number of committees that had long outlived their usefulness, and only really existed because it pleased some external stakeholders to have a seat at a table.

Sinclair said the Tax Office is trying to become more flexible about how some tasks are performed by asking “What must go right?” instead of “What could go wrong?” and recognising which procedures are truly mandatory, and why. An important theme throughout the discussion was keeping in mind the overall purpose of the organisation, and putting practicality ahead of process where possible.

When DFAT’s Louise Hand came back from an overseas posting, she was given the red tape reduction task. She declined to provide secretary Peter Varghese with a report, and instead took a video camera and produced a short film featuring DFAT staff labouring through tangles of internal procedures. In a nod to the need to fundamentally break out of the old ways of working, she even served the secretary popcorn when he viewed it.

Some of the biggest changes DFAT has implemented are short “stand-up meetings” held in common areas of the building that only last 7-10 minutes and involve a ban on  “long explanations”, as well as increasing use of verbal briefing.

As IPAA ACT deputy president and Defence chief operating officer Brendan Sargeant commented, internal red tape grows back quickly in the public service. But he has hope the Belcher review will be a very useful “catalyst for change” in concert with the broad PGPA management reforms that demand, among other things, a shift to a more nuanced understanding of different risks.

“… Belcher had only agreed to do the red tape review if it wouldn’t sit on a shelf … ”

Deputy Australian Public Service Commissioner Stephanie Foster said her boss and the heads of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department agreed their agencies were “the biggest culprits” in making other public servants jump through regulatory hoops.

She said Belcher had only agreed to do the red tape review if, this time, it would not “sit on a shelf” like so many government reports. The challenge was to find new, quick ways to get moving on the implementing the recommendations, “without creating any extra red tape” through the usual rigmarole like formally allocating responsibility for each recommendation and requiring regular progress reports against each one.

Mandarins are keen to avoid the very real potential for this report on reducing red tape to implemented in an unnecessarily complex way, but also aware of the possibility that in the absence of process, the whole project could fall over.

Forget about Tim Tam fraud

It could be difficult to successfully pursue Belcher’s advice if the approach is to replace time-consuming step-by-step procedures with the opposite: motherhood statements about getting on with the real work that public servants are hired for that are devoid of practical guidance. Helgeby says it all comes back to the changing approach to risk.

The process around buying biscuits for morning teas, for example, could be relaxed — even the most egregious “Tim Tam fraud” would still be a drop in the departmental bucket of funding, Foster joked. Even a really nice office coffee machine is a pretty small purchase in the scheme of things, that could surely be safely entrusted to senior bureaucrats who are already given control of huge budgets to devise and implement policies that shape massive areas of public life.

It is equally obvious that strong controls will always be demanded in higher risk areas, like cash handling and procurement.

Helgeby said things might not have “changed enough, or in the right ways” since the early days of his career, when public resources were so tightly controlled he had to present his old pencil, worn down to a nub, before he would be given a new one.

“It was much trickier with pens,” he remarked, explaining one had to draw circles on a piece of paper to prove it was actually running out.

Regardless of technological change since those days, he said fairly mundane tasks like moving a desk, telephone or computer to a new location — let alone booking travel — were still too complex and time-consuming. The 11 steps in the process of moving someone from one building to another were overkill.

“That’s just not good enough,” said Helgeby, for a public service that supposedly values things like dynamism, flexibility, collaboration, innovation and agility. He said public servants spend far too much of their time on administrative procedures instead of the core work it is all meant to support.

“It doesn’t need to be like that,” he added, “and it would be a good thing if, in a systematic way, we could try and reduce … the burden of it.”

He said secretaries didn’t want to respond to Belcher’s 134 recommendations in the usual way — splitting them into different categories ranging from those that could be done right away to “the ones we won’t touch” — and instead decided to get moving on all 134 as soon as possible.

“And I think that’s a very big and important step,” he said. Departments still had to work through challenges and consult with stakeholders, but he pledged they were “not going to muck around” this time.

“We’ve got to do something to address the clogging of the public sector arteries, and we’ve got to do something to address our culture,” said Helgeby.

It’s easy to make fun of the way government organisations have a procedure for everything, far beyond anything found in the offices of the private sector. But those step-by-step processes for the expenditure of public resources exist for good reason, and in line with the legislative responsibilities of federal employees, many will remain.

The clear point made at the forum was that when the level of procedure looks like it is clearly, obviously over the top, and far out of proportion with the risk presented, then it probably is.

Top image, left to right: Sue Sinclair, Stephanie Foster, Virginia Haussegger, Stein Helgeby, Louise Hand.

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