Reform doesn’t take forever: NSW Treasury’s reformist chief resigns after two years


Robert “Rob” Whitfield, group executive of Westpac Institutional Bank, listens during a Bloomberg Television interview at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China, on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. The meeting runs through Sept. 12. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rob Whitfield, the rainmaking banker-cum-public servant who engineered the latest New South Wales Budget described by the state’s Treasurer as the “envy of the Western world”, has announced his resignation just a week after the surplus-laden document was handed down.

The Treasury Secretary and Secretary for Industrial Relations will leave in July after just two years in the post, coming good on his well stated position that he joined the public service to create positive change rather than a career for life.

Headhunted by former Premier Mike Baird (himself a one-time refugee from the financial services sector), Whitfield’s major contributions have included the prosecution of a government asset recycling agenda that featured major transactions including the privatisation of ‘poles and wires’ electricity distribution assets and a long term operating lease for the state’s Land and Property Information titling and registration unit.

Budget reformation

But below the headlines of chunky cash transactions to swell the state’s coffers, Whitfield also implemented a core rebuild of the processes and systems that underpin government expenditure administration through a shift from tracking individual funding measures to measuring the effectiveness of specific spending outcomes across the whole of government.

Dubbed “outcome-budgeting” the ambitious reform also aims to untangle a 35-year old legislative hairball that has increasingly encumbered the delivery, speed and effectiveness of policies and programs and is underpinned by the Financial Management Transformation program and a new technology platform.

The 2017 NSW Budget papers put it like this:

“Changing the way the Government makes budget decisions is a fundamental reform. To ensure the reform’s success, the Government is transitioning towards outcome-budgeting over a number of years. In this Budget, we are delivering the foundation for outcome-budgeting.

As part of the 2017-18 Budget process, agencies in the public sector have reported their financial information in our new financial management system, Prime. For the first time, this financial data has been systematically built around programs that agencies provide to the community.”

Surplus seeking missile: Rob Whitfield is on the loose.

Broadly speaking, NSW Treasury under Whitfield has moved to a footing where the dollar value of spending is correlated to a form of return on investment that, colloquially put indicated the ‘bang for buck’ against set policy objectives or targets. The results obviously can’t be expressed in simple net profit terms, but what will come into sight is how well money is spent — and whether underspend creates policy performance and delivery obstacles.

Theory of value applied

Another passion of Whitfield’s has been re-examining state’s balance sheet, especially on the valuation methods applied to assets like property to reconsider what value they contribute to the community and economy — for example what effect parks or community facilities and programs have on the health of a community and how this plays out a financial level.

Premier (and former Treasurer) Gladys Berejiklian credited Whitfield with “bringing NSW Treasury into the 21st century and guiding our State to a position of fiscal strength” in her statement on his departure.

“To have had someone of Rob’s calibre at the helm of Treasury has been hugely beneficial to our State, particularly during one of the most exciting and eventful times in the history of NSW Treasury.”

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, who was handed around $12 billion in surpluses across the forward estimates for his first Budget, was also understandably warm in his personal thanks to Whitfield.

“Since coming into the role of Treasurer in January this year — and especially in delivering the 2017-18 Budget last week — I have deeply valued Rob’s wisdom and advice, which are testament to the depth and breadth of his decades of experience as one of Australia’s most successful banking and finance executives,” Perrottet said.

According to reports Mr Whitfield is now being courted for board appointments in his life after government.

A joint statement from the Premier and Treasurer said a new Treasury Secretary and Secretary for Industrial Relations will be announced prior to Mr Whitfield’s departure. No pressure.

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