Adaptive government? Easier said than done, Peter Shergold told

By Stephen Easton

Monday April 11, 2016

Peter Shergold
Peter Shergold

Peter Shergold’s recent report Learning from Failure prescribes a set of administrative reforms the former mandarin calls “adaptive government” to reduce the chance of major public sector projects going pear-shaped, as several have in the recent past.

The report — and related remarks its author made at the launch of a new consulting firm in Canberra — generated a lot of positive interest and supportive commentary. But there were also some less enthusiastic reactions, and among other academics who investigate processes of government, The Mandarin understands it received a fairly lukewarm reception.

Shergold (pictured) is giving another presentation on the report at midday today, to members of the Institute for Public Administration Australia (ACT branch). A video of the speech will be published by The Mandarin.

Public administration researcher Gemma Carey from the University of New South Wales, Canberra, explained that already, “processes of adaptation sit at the heart of many modern government reforms, particularly in the social services sector”. But making adaptive government work isn’t as easy as Shergold makes it sound.

“This sounds like common sense, but in practice is perhaps one of the most challenging things to do in the context of large government bureaucracies,” Carey told The Mandarin. “Bureaucracies are by their nature slow-moving beasts, and reforms which have adaptation as explicit goals have in the past become overly rigid and compliance driven.”

She suggests that Jobs Network — which was introduced by a department Shergold led — “is an important reminder of this tendency”. As he reflects in the report:

“That ambition has been only half-fulfilled. The goal seemed so straightforward—setting an outcome (how many jobseekers were placed into work for 13 or 26 weeks) and allowing contracted providers to decide on their own approach to achieving it. Unfortunately, the process has become burdened by tomes of prescriptive guidelines. The organisations have been treated as if they were mini-government agencies and expected to do things in very similar ways.”

Carey agrees with Shergold’s assessment that risk aversion is holding back “reforms that require adaption, learning and experimentation”.

“However,” she added, “we need to be realistic about what it would take to counter this. This means thinking deeply about what sits behind catchy terms like ‘adaptive government’ and paying attention to less sexy issues of governance structures.”

Structural change and training needs

To enable the more mature approach to risk that is needed, Carey suggests public sector entities might need to be structured differently and possibly given more resources — “adaptation is expensive” — as well as developing a culture of learning. Based on her own work on joined-up governance and how adaptive regulation could apply to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, she says governments don’t pay enough attention to training and professional development to support adaptive approaches.

“Moreover,” she told The Mandarin, “the true cost of creating the type of environment described by Shergold is rarely recognised, with government agencies increasingly expected to do more with less.

“… adaptive government will become merely another buzzword that produces no substantive change and distracts from the real issues at play.”

“Shergold is right that this must start with public sector leaders, but those leaders need to have both a deep understanding of the challenge ahead as well as the remit to instigate such major changes. Otherwise, adaptive government will become merely another buzzword that produces no substantive change and distracts from the real issues at play.”

Former Canberra public servant Paddy Gourley was unimpressed with the report, calling it “unbalanced” and arguing success stories are better to learn from than failures. In an article last month he took aim at Shergold’s relentless enthusiasm, which permeates the report, accusing him of distorting reality to strengthen his arguments, particularly about the supposed need to roll back the freedom of information system.

Elsewhere, according to Gourley, the report offers some worthwhile recommendations around risk, and “some sensible if hardly earth-shattering recommendations about project and program management”. But, he says, it fails to heed the lessons of history in its suggestions about “opening up” the workforce.

Economist Nicholas Gruen contributed to peer reviewing the report and shared the extensive feedback he gave Shergold on his blog. Referring the report’s title and its genesis as yet another rehash of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s botched home insulation program, he commented archly that:

“He was asked to do this by a government that, pretty obviously, wasn’t the slightest bit interested in learning from its or anyone else’s mistakes.”

Gruen noted that “the art of the courtier is making some kind of silk purse out of this sow’s ear”, and arguably that’s what Shergold has done, by creating an ambitious guide to bureaucratic reform that acknowledges large-scale failure is common in all governments, rather than a political weapon.

Gruen’s feedback on the parts of the paper he reviewed included a broad sense that Shergold didn’t probe deeply enough into what had stopped adaptive government taking hold already, given much of what he suggests has been put forward before.

Like Carey, Gruen also felt the report could have done more with the story of Job Network being set up in the 1990s with ideas resembling the “adaptive government gospel” but ending up tangled in red tape:

“Rather than just mention it as an example, I think the report could offer some greater guidance to practitioners if it really tried to sketch out clearly … the main mechanisms and drivers that saw it degraded from the vision of its initial stewards and then asked — how do we stop those forces, or give those fighting against them a fair chance[?]”

On risk, Gruen submitted:

“Whenever I see reference to ‘risk aversion’ I always ask what kind of risk. Inevitably in my experience, ‘risk aversion’ is an aversion to risks as seen by the interests of the agency doing the work and its people. Almost invariably risk is actually increased, but certain kinds of process risk are reduced. Usually certain kinds of execution risks are minimised but what you might call outcome risk rises! – as it did with [the Home Insulation Program]. I think this is a more compelling way to talk about what’s going on that just referring to ‘risk aversion’.”

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Ed Bernacki
Ed Bernacki
5 years ago

Years ago I did a study for a Canadian Govt Dept on essentials skills training in society. I did some interviews in Singapore where the private sector insisted it could deliver this skills training better than the public sector. Perhaps. The ‘bureaucrat’ I interviewed did not believe the private sector providers were sophisticated enough to deliver this training. The govt shaped professional development and certification courses to improve the effectiveness of private sector providers to deliver essential skills training to citizens. Often this started with very basic issues of managing staff, delivering services, etc. These programs improved business management skills. The same happened in NZ when New Zealand Trade and Enterprise launched http://www.BetterbyDesign.org.nz (about 2002) as a consulting service to work with large businesses to improve their management skills to focus more on innovation and export product development.
I could not help but think the home insulation program failed as it trusted businesses to do the right thing – train staff, maintain safety standards, and so on. The private sector is no more or no less innovative than the public sector. The private sector can be highly mediocre as well. When it is, the public sector gets the blame.