Oversight agencies: ‘too much light is blinding’

By David Donaldson

Friday August 18, 2017

Yehudi Blacher at Public Sector Week 2017, source: @mitzi_bolton on twitter: https://twitter.com/Mitzi_Bolton/status/898327509460070402

The proliferation of oversight agencies and a vigorous media are making public servants and politicians alike timid and risk averse, says a former Victorian department head.

While sunlight is a good protector against corruption, too much of it can be blinding, argued Yehudi Blacher, former boss of the Department of Planning and Community Development at the ‘is Westminster cracking up?’ session at Public Sector Week.

The post-war period has seen a mushrooming of what are known as “monitory” agencies, namely “ombudsmen, auditors-general, IBAC, human rights and equal opportunity agencies, FOI, special purpose commissioners, as well as the media, all scrutinising the conduct of public administration,” Blacher noted.

“While each individually might be a good thing in their own right, together, and in combination with the media cycle, they breed a timidity and an often undesirable risk aversion amongst both elected officials and public officials.

“The media often talks about its role as shining a light on the exercise of power, as a bulwark against the tendency for power to corrupt, and it would really be hard to disagree with that sentiment. However it’s also true that too much light is blinding and it leaves you uncertain about where you are and where you’re going. And I think we’re in that sort of moment where we are somewhat blinded,” he said.

Public administration objectives ‘actually very simple’

There has been a “frenzy of faddism” in the public sector over the past few decades, Blacher argued, naming “the rise of managerialism, the privileging of generalists over specialists, the privileging of central functions, and particularly policy functions over service delivery, the view of public administration as steering not rowing, the rise of mega-departments, the increasing centralisation of control of policy and business processes, both within departments and between departments and central agencies.”

He also noted the focus first on outputs and now outcomes, “perhaps not appreciating that we need to focus on both.”

His point in raising these movements was not that they were good or bad, or that they have been successful or otherwise, but that public administration is “an open-ended work in progress”.

“If there’s any criticism it’s that there have been too many attempts at high-level reconceptualising of the objectives and craft of public administration, which actually is very simple: to provide the best possible services within available resources to achieve the objectives of the day.”

And while there has been lots of discussion of how the work of the public sector is changing, capability has not kept pace.

“There’s not been enough sustained investment in the changing skills and objectives needed to achieve those objectives,” Blacher argued.

“It’s all too easy to bring in consultants, but that too is sometimes problematic. It assumes that agencies are good at specifying what they want, at managing their consultants, and at managing their intellectual property, which is actually transferred to the purchaser. I’m sure all of you agree that these activities could have been done better than is currently the case.”

Skills and training lag

But the former secretary also conceded that while it’s easy to criticise, coming up with a solution is much harder.

He proposed a range of ideas to improve how the public sector operates.

“There needs to be much more investment in accredited professional development programs in areas such as contract and project management, policy analysis, program design, relationship management, budget and financial management, and even, dare I say it, brief writing and writing skills. The demonstration of these skills and capabilities through accredited programs, rather than just experience, ought to be a precondition for consideration for promotion, or even initial appointment.

“We talk about investment in our staff, but really don’t have either the incentive structures nor make available the necessary resources for this to be done systemically,” he noted. While many professions require accredited skills as a precondition for employment, this is not how government currently works.

“Accredited professional development of staff shouldn’t be an optional extra, but an essential part of a career in the public sector. To be frank, you simply wouldn’t get away with the lack of investment in skills and development in the private sector that we do in the public sector.”

Making collaboration a reality

Although the public sector talks a lot about collaboration both within departments and between departments and other sectors, “in truth, collaborative behaviours remain at the margins of the way in which we do business, not at its core.

“Moreover we struggle to do it without very high transaction costs, and we don’t have rewards systems which encourage collaborative behaviour,” he said.

“If leadership of the public service is serious about joining up and collaboration, there does need to be a sustained and demonstrative focus on rewarding collaborative behaviours and achievements. There are probably three distinct areas where that needs to occur: behaviourally, in the budgeting process and structurally.

“Behaviourally ought to be relatively straightforward: senior management demonstrating collaborative behaviours with their colleagues, communication of collaborative achievements, designing spaces where people can work together.

Funding agreements could be used to build in collaboration. In areas where the rules require agencies to work together to address wicked problems, “governments could allocate funds to a lead agency as a budget holder and require that agency to work with other relevant agencies to develop their components of a program and allocate funds accordingly. This would facilitate a much stronger, outcomes-based focus to funding by making clear that the locus of responsibility for delivering rests with multiple agencies, but ultimate accountability with the lead agency.

Shaking up how departments are set up can help too.

“Structurally we might think of a range of different mechanisms for inter-agency collaboration. Co-location of government departments, perhaps branded as a ‘Victorian government’ entity in regions, rather than department by department.

“But also I think returning in some way to the primacy of service delivery. That is a suggestion that in the regions, rather than having regional directors department by department, we have directors responsible for a region that are responsible for the functions of multiple agencies operating in those regions.”

Photo source: @mitzi_bolton on Twitter.

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