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Chris Eccles: what will the public sector look like in ten years?

SPEECH: Victoria’s top public servant finds lessons for the future in one of our greatest public policy achievements. Success starts with a moral purpose and realistic goal-setting, latest technology, diverse teams and engagement.

The rough and tumble of daily – or weekly – cycles often focuses our attention on the immediate, but we must always make space to discuss the long-term and the big picture so we continue to serve the people of Victoria as best we can.

There is always room for improvement in the performance of the Victorian public service. We know that. And the organisational changes happening in my own Department of Premier and Cabinet are going to provide an example of that improvement. I’ll come to those changes a little later, but I thought I’d start with a good story about what the public service can achieve for our community, and one of the greatest public service achievements of modern times.

It starts back in the 1940s, and concerns one of the big fears of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

It was a disease. A cruel and painful disease that stigmatised its victims, separated husbands from wives, parents from children, and was an endless source of nightmares and fear. There was no reliable cure. What treatments did exist were Dickensian, frightening and usually ineffective. As those of you who studied literature will know, this disease haunted almost every novel of the Nineteenth Century. It killed the poet John Keats, and the novelists Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and George Orwell and almost killed Albert Camus. It was defeated, though, in one of the greatest public policy successes of all time.

It was the bacterial disease tuberculosis.

People assume T.B. was defeated by science, and that’s true. New drugs developed during the Second World War gave doctors the weapons to attack it. But that’s only half the story. The other side of the story involved people just like us: public servants and policy makers.

During the Second World War, as effective anti-T.B. drugs were being developed, military forces around the world were understandably keen to prevent outbreaks of T.B. among their troops. So they developed screening processes to identify those infected to keep them from infecting others.

Those processes were highly successful, so much so that when the war ended, the Commonwealth government and the states, including Victoria, created a civilian regime to screen and treat sufferers of the disease in the wider community.

At that time T.B. was killing many thousands across Australia. The national tuberculosis campaign identified the sufferers, provided them with the highly effective new treatments available, supported the sufferers financially, tackled the social stigma associated with the disease, and conducted new research into cures and treatments. It was a broad assault.

Despite the lack of capital available after the war, the necessary funds were found, new facilities were built, equipment was purchased and medical staff were hired. The campaign drew in experts from diverse fields, enlisted numerous government departments and brought the whole community into the fight. It went out to the people. Anyone in their mid-50s might remember the vans parked outside local shopping centres offering free chest x‑rays.

As a result of this great piece of public policy, mortality declined from 24.8 per 100,000 in the population in 1949 to 2.7 in 1966. The disease was for all intents and purposes defeated. And Australia became a world leader in tuberculosis control.

Without a coordinated public health campaign, the suffering and deaths would have continued. And that’s proved by what happened elsewhere. Where public policy was weak, where no well-organised state existed to pursue the welfare of its citizens, T.B. survived, which is why we remain on our guard.

Obviously this isn’t the 1940s. Public policy has to cope with vastly more complex issues. But the way we defeated T.B. still holds important lessons for us.

It teaches us that in any major public policy endeavour:

  • we have to start with a strong sense of moral purpose
  • we have to have a well-defined and achievable goal
  • we have to utilise all available new technologies
  • we have to get diverse groups of people pursuing the same goals
  • and we have to enlist the entire community in the solution.

Ultimately the victory against T.B. shows that good public policy must have a clear picture of the outcomes it wants to achieve. And it must demonstrate how those outcomes will make our lives better.

A moral purpose for the public sector

In this modern managerial age, moral purpose is something we don’t talk about often enough. But it’s crucial.

The public service is a complex institution – we all know that. And of necessity, each of us typically have set and defined roles. With our heads down, working through set processes, focusing on our individual tasks, trying valiantly to meet performance targets, we can sometimes lose sight of the big picture, even forget what it’s all for.

Obviously, it’s crucial that we fulfil all our tasks with the greatest efficiency and integrity. But fulfilling bureaucratic requirements, even achieving defined performance targets… such things are not the true end purpose of the public service.

Guiding everything we do is a sense of broader purpose. What is it?

It’s not always easy to define, and it can’t always be quantified. But it’s the thing we all ultimately join the public service for: the impulse to create a better society.

It’s made up of a lot of beliefs that are informed by our values system: the belief that everyone has an equal voice in our democracy, that discrimination is wrong, that justice is blind, that all children are entitled to a quality education, that long-term unemployment is destructive to a community, that we must leave a clean environment to the next generation, and that the sick should get the health care they need, regardless of means.

It’s when our desired outcomes are based on the right moral purpose that we deliver public value to the people of Victoria. And I believe we can organise ourselves in better ways to achieve that goal.

My question is: How can we use this sort of thinking today to improve the lives of the people of Victoria? How can the Victorian public service put purposeful, clearly-defined and measurable outcomes at the heart of everything we do?

A ten-year transformation

We’ve tried this sort of holistic approach to public policy before — through the Growing Victoria Together project. Growing Victoria Together was an ambitious medium-to-long-term policy framework built around 11 important issues and associated performance measures.

It was a great idea, which gave us a picture of the sort of community we wanted to create. But it never got embedded deeply enough into the way we operate to really get the results we wanted. The cultural change didn’t occur. The necessary technical capabilities were never established. The vision for outcomes didn’t permeate the public service as a whole, just parts of it.

The big idea I want you to contemplate is: what will our public service be like in ten years, if today we begin a transformation process of moving to an outcomes-based approach to public policy in Victoria.

It’s going to require a major shift from the way government currently works. And it’s going to need a lot of commitment from us to make it successful. IPAA is a great place to spread the word, and I want to thank Gill Callister and IPAA for giving me the opportunity to do so as part of this terrific BIG IDEAS series.

Concentrating our efforts on achieving improved outcomes for the people of Victoria will be a difficult job, as cultural change in big institutions always is. It will need committed adherents. And I’m hoping you will join me in making it happen.

Why move to ‘outcomes’?

So why a renewed emphasis on outcomes for the Victorian public service?

Many reasons are coming together to make it essential for us.

Obviously, citizen expectations of us are increasing. Whether it’s better-performing schools, more medical procedures with shorter waiting lists, more public transport services, shorter car commutes, or safer streets, people are demanding more in return for their taxes, and we have to deliver.

Connected to this is the fact that we operate in a more critical environment. We’re under greater scrutiny from public institutions like the Victorian Parliament, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office and royal commissions, as well as citizens empowered by social media.

At the same time, the rising cost of providing services requires us to be sharper and more efficient in the way we operate.  Often, this means we can’t use a one size fits all approach. We need the flexibility to try different solutions in different areas, and with different populations.

The fact is, when we concentrate on delivering inputs and measuring outputs, we can’t be 100 per cent certain that what we are doing is making a difference, and we’re locked in to solutions that don’t reflect the complexity of our communities.

Obviously there’s a tension here. State and Commonwealth reporting requirements will always be comprehensive and involve measurement of inputs and outputs, no matter what emphasis we give to outcomes. Intergovernmental agreements are usually strict about these points. But, as they say, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and develop ways to reconcile these two approaches by ensuring we spend money appropriately while maintaining a focus on the broad outcomes we seek.

Concentrating on getting the right outcomes will be far more effective. And I believe it’s what the people want from their public service. It’s certainly what the government wants, and it’s the direction in which it has instructed us to move.

So how do we do it? What will be different this time?

The answer in part is to create a more direct line of sight between what we do, the money we invest and spend, and the results as measured in better services and a higher quality of life for our citizens. It’s about focusing on what we want to achieve, not how we operate, or how much we spend.

The fate of the Gonski school funding plan stands as a warning. As David Gonski himself has admitted, it was too easily associated with amounts of money and funding processes rather than on the specific outcomes it sought for students. In other words, it became associated with inputs rather than outcomes, making the fight to implement the reforms that much more difficult.

Communicating our priorities more clearly and explaining why they matter will provide a better basis for sustained effort and resource allocation. It will allow us to engage better with communities, experts and service delivery sectors to understand local needs and opportunities. And it will enable us to consider a far wider and more flexible range of approaches, and in that way improve our success in achieving the outcomes we seek.

Special challenges

Embedding outcomes in the way we work is going to have some far-reaching consequences for the way we operate as a public service, especially how we implement major reforms. At present the model is clear enough: make the case for change, engage ministerial support, get endorsements, develop a work plan for reform implementation, and so forth. Pursuing wider and longer-term goals is going to require other capabilities.

For example, how to plan reforms to endure beyond electoral cycles. The public service can only take reforms so far, especially if the political environment is one of short-termism. We have to get better at working with the political class to get across the benefits of pursuing broad outcomes, while helping them adjust the focus where necessary according to the specific policy mandates they have received from the public. The Premier speaks insistently in terms of outcomes, and we need to both leverage and hone that authority.

We will also have to build mutual accountability for outcomes with the public purpose sector. Rather than seeing themselves as responsible for delivering tightly-defined services, we need our non‑government partners to become better at accepting responsibility for the co-design and collaborative achievement of broad societal outcomes.

And we will have to get better at explaining the nature and importance of outcomes-based policy to the media. After all, it’s the media, with its day-to-day, hour-to-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute attention span that drives a share of the short-termism of modern politics. How can we use modern media techniques to persuade them to take a longer view, get onside, get the public onside and convince incoming governments to stay the course on big-picture policy directions? It’s a crucial question. And it’s not good enough to say it’s completely out of our control.

As a by-product, this new way of working will drive transformative changes in the way our public services operate. It will help us improve our budget strategies, our performance management, our governance and accountability processes, the way we manage and share information, how we assess what works and what doesn’t among competing policy options, and make our place-based programs more effective.

It’s an obvious opportunity for us to gain new skills because we will have to become more collaborative and get better at things like data collection and analysis, and project evaluation.

This is one of the reasons why the government has announced the creation of a new data agency, but there’s a long way to go before we gain sufficient skills and collect enough data to support a top class outcomes-based approach to delivering services.

The practical benefits for people

So what does this mean in a practical sense? Take the example of family violence. We know, from the evidence heard by the Royal Commission, that despite our best intentions, our service system did not do enough to protect some of Victoria’s most vulnerable from harm.

Our system’s focus on measuring activity and delivering outputs, rather than outcomes, meant services and activities operated as a series of discrete programs, all working on their particular task. The structures and the incentives weren’t right to embed an integrated, person-centred approach. People weren’t always getting connected with all the services they needed, and when they accessed new services they were forced to retell their story.

Social services reform is going to help us change that, and outcomes will be a building block of our new system. A switch to outcomes will put the focus back on what we achieve for people, not just what we deliver to them.

In the family violence context, that could mean more collaboration between service providers, more information sharing, or providing different supports to suit each family. The scale of the family violence reform will be enormous, requiring government to change the way we fund, deliver and evaluate services.

The restructures just announced in DPC, which focus on implementing the family violence reforms, will demonstrate how the public service can begin to organise itself around outcomes. In creating a new Family Violence and Service Delivery Reform Group, we are structurally embedding a shared focus on improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable Victorians.

We are steering away from a siloed, portfolio-driven approach. Each of the new branches will be responsible for cross-cutting issues that underpin how the government responds to family violence.

The Co-Design, Consultation and Communications Branch will deliver on the government’s commitment to co-design and consult with the community, service sector and other stakeholders.

Development of the family violence policy and service response for communities that face unique challenges, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, will be led by the Diverse Communities Branch.

There are two branches to support the rollout of the 17 new Support and Safety Hubs across Victoria; the Service Design Branch, which will develop a new approach to multi-agency safeguarding and access to services, and the Operations Branch, which will oversee the operational aspects of hub rollout and administration.

The Sector and Workforce Readiness Branch will lead funding, budget, and workforce reform, and will support the sector to transition to working in the new system.

Better information sharing and data collection across the family violence response will be led by the Information and Data Reform Branch.

Coordination of key whole-of-government social policy reforms that interface with the family violence reforms will be undertaken by the Innovative Justice, Housing and Roadmap for Reform Branch.

Finally, the Delivery Unit will oversee the delivery of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, coordinate activity across government and be responsible for the delivery of the 10-year action plan and investment plan.

I want to stress that this is not another managerial upheaval that will simply deliver new org charts, new consultation processes, new data to measure and new reporting processes to fulfil. Those things will change, as they always do, but they are not the point of an outcomes focused exercise.

At every step, we must keep in mind one simple point: the outcomes we seek are not numbers. They are not data points to be plotted on graphs and put on PowerPoint slides. Our outcomes are about people. They are about helping people and communities live better lives.

Outcomes-based policy is already becoming part of the way we work

The good sense of this is obvious, and all of you will be aware of how it’s already becoming part of the way we work.

The new Regional Partnerships model, set to commence in July, aims to better target and coordinate local activity in nine regions across the state. At the heart of that partnerships process is getting state and local governments, local businesses and community organisations to work together to devise the priorities that will get results at the local level.

It’s not so much a case of making more services available to the regions, as getting the regions to help us figure out what projects and services, delivered in what ways, will get the right outcomes. The emphasis in the partnerships on creating jobs and tackling disadvantage will ensure they contribute to the overall outcome of creating more prosperous and inclusive communities.

The partnerships will get regional policy flowing in the right order:

  • setting priorities based on agreed outcomes
  • driving action to pursue them
  • building coalitions to carry through and get results
  • and monitoring and reporting on the resulting prosperity, wellbeing and sustainability in their regions.

We’ve shown it to work in Victoria already…

When we have pursued clear outcomes like this in the past, it has led to success.

The best example, of course, is reducing the road toll. Think about its components – which are all essentially outcomes-focused.

  • Its outcome has from the start been the ultimate one – keeping people alive.
  • Its target was and remains simple to understand – reducing the road toll, which it has done. The road toll has fallen from 1061 in 1970 to 252 in 2015. It’s now called ‘Towards Zero’ for a reason. Zero road deaths is the outcome we want.
  • Its means involved wide cooperation. The Transport Accident Commission, Victoria Police and other government departments and agencies, including VicRoads, have worked together to coordinate action to pursue the Towards Zero outcome.

Seat belts, random breath testing, radar guns and speed cameras, media campaigns, changes to speed limits, infrastructure improvements, roadside drug testing, hoon legislation and the graded licencing system – everything is considered but it is only adopted if it holds the promise of success.

Importantly, the moral purpose and ethic of the Towards Zero quest has so ingrained itself in the way we think as a public service and as a people, that it’s been strongly resistant to populist opportunism. Efforts to unwind it by relaxing adherence to speed limits and undermining the use of speed and red light cameras have routinely failed.

And the media has played its part brilliantly.

For four and a half decades, the pursuit of this outcome has brought the whole state and the whole community together in an unbeatable alliance. It’s the sort of thing we should do more of. It’s a matter of organising what we do around the outcomes we want.

So let’s consider some other areas where a similar laser-like focus on outcomes could result in better lives for Victorians.

Here are a few:

  • preventing suicide
  • reducing crime and recidivism
  • increasing youth employment
  • increasing cancer survival
  • increasing the number of Aboriginal people in senior leadership
  • helping the Richmond Tigers win the flag.

You know, of that list, only the last one seems truly impossible!

We can do it!

As examples like the fight against T.B. and the road toll show, quests like this really bring out the best in us.

As a dedicated public servant, I know that our actions are overwhelmingly motivated by the desire to serve the public. After all, if you have a great degree, why join the public service when you could join a merchant bank or a business advisory firm?

We join the public service because we care. When we’re at our best, it’s because there’s a strong moral purpose to what we do, and good structures in place, motivating us to work for the common good.

That’s what this switch to an outcomes focus will be about: clarity about our purpose and objectives. And clarity about how we can help make Victoria an even better place for people to live in.

This is an edited version of an address by Chris Eccles to IPAA Victoria’s BIG IDEAS series in Melbourne on June 29.

Author Bio

Chris Eccles

Chris Eccles is currently secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and head of the Victorian Public Service. He has held equivalent roles in the NSW and South Australian public services.