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Peter Shergold: ditch the old public service model

Central to the goals set out in the New South Wales government’s 10-year plan, NSW 2021, is the intention to improve the performance of the state’s economy. The overall objective is to make NSW not just the best performing state in Australia, but a leading economic and financial capital in the Asia-Pacific region. An efficient, effective and ethical public sector is critical to this bold ambition.

The state government remains NSW’s largest employer with around 400,000 workers; 11% of the state’s workforce.The size and scope of the public sector as a program funder, service deliverer and market regulator means that strategies focused on improving state performance must depend in large measure on the sector’s productivity. It must do more with less. It must do things differently.

Commitment and dedication are not the issue. NSW public sector employees work hard to deliver high-quality service in an environment characterised by structural and operational change and fiscal restraint. Those who work conscientiously for successive governments are strongly imbued with a sense of public purpose. At all levels, across the extraordinary diversity of the occupations within the State public sector, a sense of vocation continues to exist.That is a strong foundation on which to build. Being a public servant has always been challenging

But it’s becoming harder. The complexities of public policy are becoming progressively more “wicked”. Citizen expectations are rising faster than governments and public services can deliver. Conversely, there is growing resistance to the incursion of government into people’s private behaviours. Partly as a consequence, the traditional challenge of assessing competing interests has intensified.

Public economy

Delivery of much public service work is now outsourced to others. A “public economy” is emerging that requires public servants to facilitate the engagement of both the not-for-profit community and private sector businesses in the delivery of governance.

Public servants no longer go it alone. Change is already evident. Innovation within the public sector is leading to exciting outcomes.What sometimes seems to be missing is the vision or courage to turn disparate elements of change into systemic transformation.

A burden of red-tape micro-management is too often imposed on front-line staff and contracted service providers in order to avoid any risk.This stifles the creativity that might come from diversity, program flexibility and customer choice.

Too many good ideas remain at the margin of public administration. Opportunities are only half seized; new modes of service delivery begin and end their working lives as “demonstration projects” or “pilots”; and creative solutions are progressively undermined by a plethora of bureaucratic guidelines. Hierarchical controls, intended to ensure quality standards, can often end up deterring local initiative.

A different type of public service is required. I don’t think it can just be an improved version of what already exists for, as then premier Barry O’Farrell said at the 2013 Premier’s Awards for Public Service, “the same old, same old is never going to be enough”.

The NSW Public Service Commission Advisory Board, which I chair, agrees.That’s why it’s promoting a program of bold reform set within the traditional values of public service. It will not be without risk.

Fortunately, the pursuit of innovation has the explicit authority and active engagement of the then premier. As he told his public service audience at the awards:

“If you are being innovative, and from time to time there are failures, don’t expect the premier … to give you a hard time … if your goal was the correct one. Because stuff-ups do occur, mistakes do happen — that’s why we trial things, that’s why we undertake pilots. But unless … we have the courage to innovate and think about how to do things differently, we won’t deliver the excellence I’m determined to achieve — through you — across this state.”

Improved public sector productivity is essential to delivering better services at a time of budget constraints. Enhancing the capacity and capability of public service organisations and ensuring more rigorous management of employee performance against results can achieve that.

The limited resources of public administration need to be allocated and deployed to maximum effect. Working smarter, or doing more with less, is a worthy goal. It can’t be pursued half-heartedly.

This article was first published in Today

Author Bio

Peter Shergold

Peter Shergold is chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. He was secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet between 2003-2008. He has been secretary of the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business and the Department of Education, Science and Training, CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Comcare, and commissioner of the Australian Public Service Commission.