Operation Scotty: the transformation that Finance cannae do alone

By Harley Dennett

Friday May 6, 2016

The APS efficiency and transformation agenda doesn’t have to be, and won’t be, an overnight activity with all the solutions known today, says the Department of Finance deputy secretary charged with steering the headline APS reform announcement in the 2016-17 federal budget.

Dr Stein Helgeby, who has carriage of governance and APS transformation, told Senate Estimates on Thursday that the program will emerge over time. The Finance senior executive is charged with managing the $500 million public sector productivity fund, generated from administrative and digital efficiencies and reinvested back into worthwhile transformation projects.

“You have just given him an idea to call it ‘operation Scotty’ so I am now going to live with that.”

“It is not about a single initiative,” Helgeby told the hearing. “There are a range of opportunities that could be taken, provided investment was made in things like technology, in things like process redesign and in things like looking for the right kinds of partnerships, not only within the public sector but also with partners outside the public sector.”

Officials would not be drawn on what efficiencies or transformation projects are on the cards — yet. Finance secretary Jane Halton advised that preliminary deliberation for the program, which doesn’t need to have generated savings until 2017-18, was being undertaken by a subgroup of the Secretaries Board. Halton explained:

“We have set up something called the Secretaries Committee on Transformation … working with colleagues on a series of pieces of work which go to shared activities, streamlining, a whole series of things. That program which is being developed in collaboration across the public sector and the way we have been working is exactly what we are going to do in this context.”

Halton added that it would not be consistent with the collaborative way they have been working to date to pre-empt that work by speculating in public about the program’s choices: “You and I both know, hares will start running. We need to have a conversation with our colleagues about where the best places are to work and to address in order to deliver the best outcome for the public sector and for the things that we value, which are good advice and great public administration.”

That secretaries committee has been self-selected, Halton advised, with department heads or representatives who “think for us this is incredibly important and we should be party to this.”

It will consider an initial work plan in the next month.

A SCoT by any other name

Senator Jenny McAllister at one point asked Halton to repeat the name of the interdepartmental committee, setting of a chain of comments that shows how quickly government naming processes can be subverted.

Halton clarified for the senator that it was the Secretaries Committee on Transformation, or SCoT.

Wong interjected, helpfully: “It is not Bon Scott?”

Halton added:  “It is not Scotty either.”

Which gave Cormann a brilliant idea: “We could call it ‘operation Scotty’.”

Halton, with her entertaining flair, clued everyone into the kind of relationship she has with the minister:  “You have just given him an idea to call it ‘operation Scotty’ so I am now going to live with that.”

Operation Tetris goes national

Another project with a name Halton has to live with, Operation Tetris, was also questioned in Estimates on Thursday. Cormann revealed that the program designed to backfill empty floors and desks at the Commonwealth’s leased premises is going national.

It fills gaps by denying agencies the right to re-sign leases or take out new leases in Canberra as long as there is existing vacant office space somewhere in the ACT. Cormann told the hearing that whole-of-government coordination has achieved a “significant level of efficiencies” already — approximately $200 million — although the budget papers indicate this figure in fact covers the next 10 years.

“Clearly the Commonwealth has a particularly significant and concentrated footprint in the ACT, so that is why we have prioritised our efforts here. It will be slightly different on a national basis but we still believe that there is opportunity for efficiency.”

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