Collegiality and the collaboration paradox for bureaucratic reform


The biggest changes to the ACT public service in years will create a stronger integrity framework, improve cross-agency collaboration, simplify recruitment and enable secondments with other governments, companies and not-for-profits.

Those, at least, are some of the aims of the bill to amend the ACT Public Sector Management Act 1994 that passed this month, carrying out a public service modernisation agenda devised by former federal mandarin Allan Hawke five years ago. Especially visible changes will be a senior executive service increasing executive mobility, and the return of an independent ACTPS standards commissioner.

“I think you have to make sure in this whole collaboration process that you’re clear about where accountability still lies.”

Most recently, the bill’s critics claimed it was an attempt to gag all those employed under it and force them to dob in errant colleagues for even the most minor misdemeanours. Two sections were then altered, after a legislative assembly committee and the ACT Human Rights Commission both expressed concerns that the bill would impinge on freedom of speech and unacceptably widen the scope of poor behaviour that must be reported.

As it stands, the territory’s public servants can still publicly criticise the government in their private capacity, according to public service commissioner Bronwen Overton-Clarke. The act prohibits behaviour that contravenes the ACTPS values or undermines its “integrity and good reputation” whether at work, on social media or elsewhere.

The bill was going to require reporting of any “misconduct” at all, but this was also wound back to cover only corruption, fraud or maladministration, as the act had previously.

Overton-Clarke thinks fears about public servants getting in trouble for not “dobbing in” their colleagues were “blown out of proportion” and says the rule would only cover serious breaches in any case.

“The example I use to public servants is: if you’re a very proud firefighter and it’s all over your Facebook site that you’re a firefighter, that’s fine — until you start slagging off the government and the minister,” she told The Mandarin. “It’s intended to be, in reality, a high bar.”

For another example, Overton-Clarke advises that ACT public servants could freely write to the local newspaper deploring the actions of the government, if they wanted, and even identifying their profession, but they shouldn’t mention they work for the government in a specific role.

“What we say is you have every right as a citizen to be able to express your views, be they political, or be they subject matter because you’re an expert in the field,” she said.

“You have every right to do that, but when you do that, don’t mix it up. Unless you have the authority to speak on behalf of the government, don’t mix it up with the professional that you are and the service that you work for.”

Online public debate is broadly the same although it can mean opinions are amplified and shared rapidly. Bureaucrats don’t have to hide their true identities if they blog or comment online, although it always depends on exactly what you say in the end.

Most public servants err on the side of caution in this regard and there are mixed views among the wider public about what is appropriate, as demonstrated in 2010 when The Australian decided to police the conditions of entry into public debate and “unmasked” a popular pseudonymous blogger who was also a federal public servant at the time.

Plenty of others thought Greg Jericho, who has since become a professional columnist, was not doing anything wrong. The Australian justified its controversial decision on the basis of accountability and the public interest, accused him of sending “partisan” tweets during work hours and argued he did not deserve anonymity.

For any ACT public servants who are bloggers, Overton-Clarke suggests “the easiest way to get around it is to put a disclaimer on your site” confessing to being a public servant and stating your views are expressed in a private capacity. Again, it depends on what you post when all is said and done.

The collaboration conundrum

The overarching goal of the ACT reforms is typical of where other Australian governments are going with public sector reform, and described in the title of Hawke’s report: Governing the City State: One ACT Government — One ACT Public Service.

“As a small government with municipal and state services, aren’t we able to do things in a more flexible and agile way and think about new ways of doing things?”

A cohesive and united public service is a worthy aim but, according to Overton-Clarke, it also presents a conundrum. It’s clear agencies must work together to get the best outcomes, but the structure of our system of government creates silos by nature with its lines of ministerial responsibility.

“I think you have to make sure in this whole collaboration process that you’re clear about where accountability still lies,” she said. “Matrix management and cross-government work doesn’t mean that everyone abrogates responsibility.”

Collaborative efforts often fail because effective collaborative governance arrangements aren’t set up. Overton-Clarke says the new legislation makes this easier, but someone always has to take ultimate responsibility.

“At the end of the day … you need to have a single area that’s responsible for taking that co-ordination and collaboration focus,” she said. “So you might have six directorates involved, and they’re all very clear about what their piece of the puzzle is, but then the main area that coordinates it and takes responsibility for the whole project is clearly identified as well.”

Collaboration is now enshrined in the legislation along with the three other ACTPS values. The Chief Minister’s deputy director-general in charge of the public sector workforce hopes having them on the books will elevate their importance and accelerate their advance into everyday culture and practice.

“I often say that two of our four values are very kind of ‘public servicey’ — respect and integrity — but the other values of collaboration and innovation are very specific to this service at this time,” said Overton-Clarke.

Whole-of-government policies and cross-agency approaches are also now backed up by other new parts of the legislation that promote “co-operation and collegiality” in the ACTPS, she explained. Canberra, she believes, should be especially fertile ground for public sector innovation.

“As a small government with municipal and state services, aren’t we able to do things in a more flexible and agile way and think about new ways of doing things?”

Secondments, standards and senior executives

The amendments also formalise secondments with private firms, non-profit groups and other governments, while an updated definition of “merit” will mean recruitment can “concentrate on outcomes rather than simply [being] an expression of process”, according to the explanatory memorandum.

“What that means is we can consider all of the pieces that go into making someone the best person for the job, not just the formal process of an application, an interview and referee’s reports,” Overton-Clarke explains. “If someone has come with really good experience and they just do a really bad interview, we wouldn’t want them to not be able to be considered the best person for the job.”

Grouping together senior executives as the SES also intends to encourage “collegiality and collaboration” in the ACTPS and the bill makes it simpler for senior staff to move between directorates, whereas the process to do so was “very clunky” in the past, says Overton-Clarke.

New SES officers will be employed under contract and appointed to a role for a period of time, but no longer belong to a certain office and can easily be moved elsewhere as priorities change.

“And you know,” the commissioner said, “there’s nothing better for people to understand how other parts of the bureaucracy work then by spending a while in those people’s shoes and seeing it from a different perspective, so we absolutely want to promote and facilitate that mobility.”

The new legislation also changes Overton-Clarke’s own job, through the creation of an independent public sector standards commissioner which sits outside the ACTPS. This takes over some aspects of her dual-role as public service commissioner and a deputy director-general in the central agency.

“Promulgating the values and behaviours and expected standards is still very much part of the central area’s function and particularly the head of service’s role,” she explained.

The new standards commissioner will conduct investigations into systemic problems and review misconduct matters as well as handling complaints and public interest disclosures. It’s not even that new, Overton-Clarke points out. The ACT has had such a position twice in the past — most recently Cheryl Vardon, who now runs the Queensland Family and Child Commission — but since 2014 there’s only been a standards commissioner for legislative assembly members.

The Greens, who have supported a minority Labor government though two terms, want the major parties to consider a more powerful anti-corruption agency more like those attached to state parliaments all over the country.

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