Boost reform case with stronger FoI, transparency: Terry Moran

Former top bureaucrat Terry Moran will today call for “radical reform” of freedom of information laws to make Australian governments more transparent, putting him at odds with former colleagues.

Making more planning and management documents public will strengthen government’s ability to reliably carry out strategic planning and investment, the former boss of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will tell the Technology One conference in Brisbane on Wednesday, in a speech outlining five principles to guide the further evolution of our systems of public administration.

The weight of opinion in the public service appears to point in the opposite direction, however, with several former secretaries having stated that existing FOI rules are already too open, and are impacting on policy development by making mandarins reluctant to write down advice.

But making more documents public will help build the case for new projects and programs, argues Moran, who led the APS under Kevin Rudd and is now chair of the Centre for Policy Development.

“These reforms will be more reliable if we transform our approach to placing planning and management documents before the public.

“There will always be exemptions for national security, commercial in confidence and personal information but business cases, feasibility studies and the like should be on the web immediately a decision has been made to proceed with a new project or program,” he says.

“Only in this way can we go past the over-reliance on guess work and the reluctance to ponder what the evidence actually suggests is the best approach to a problem or initiative. It follows that I’m in favour of a radical reform of FOI laws.”

New Zealand, which has much greater transparency, and makes Cabinet documents public as a matter of course, ranked fourth on last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index “largely off the back of this sort of transparency,” he notes. “We came in 13th.”

Principles to improve public administration

Moran foresees a fourth age of Australian public administration, following on from the third age, which was characterised by competition, shrinking the public sector and increasing marketisation.

Adaptation to globalisation and digital disruption requires a rethink of how government works, he argues.

“Big data, open data systems, robotics, artificial intelligence, double digit shifts in productivity will require a further transformation in our workforces, a softening of the boundaries between public and private sector people in any given area of activity and changing community expectations of governments and the public services,” he thinks. “However, the tested culture and values which guide our work must be preserved and nurtured.”

The mandarin suggests public services need to develop their analytic tools to take account of distributive justice alongside technical efficiency if governments want to maintain public support for technological innovation and open markets, which will have significant impacts on the workforce and society.

“Our Treasury undertook pioneering work on a well-being index under the leadership of Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson. It is a pity that this promising beginning has been set aside in recent times,” thinks Moran.

Developments in technology will make it “far easier” to devolve more responsibility for delivery to the local level, he says.

“It will be easier to track the life journey of individuals, assess the need for interventions from a social investment perspective, transmit ideas, materials and examples of best professional practice to the local level and know more in real time about how the whole system is working,” he suggests.

“Critical processing tasks must be brought up to date to achieve efficiency gains and respond to new policy directions.”

We need “a more strategic approach to planning and assessing investments in our major government systems”, he will also argue.

Bureaucrats should also “have one eye on Asia” to consider how changes in things like demography, health, technology, migration, governance and sustainability will impact policy settings at home.

Moran’s final guideline is that government needs to “match, if not better, the private sector in responding to new technologies and improving efficiency.”

“We will be expected to achieve significant productivity improvements, a more dispersed approach to innovation, services tailored to the needs of local communities and joined up where necessary, the rapid deployment of new capabilities and systems, real time feedback and responses for service delivery,” he argues.

“This new system cannot be micro-managed from central bureaucracies which will need to redefine their roles. Without changes such as this the public service workforce will be dealt out of delivery over a ten to twenty year period.”

Terry Moran will deliver his speech to the One Technology conference in Brisbane on Wednesday afternoon.

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