Terry Moran: Australians want bold government, not shrinking violets

By Harley Dennett

Wednesday November 22, 2017

Australians are fed up with policymakers in this country, says new attitude research, and they have a right to be according to one of the nation’s top former public servants.

Terry Moran’s remarks to IPAA Victoria’s fellows dinner on Tuesday were less of a stinging rebuke for the profession he once led, but rather a rallying cry to get energised and get back in the game.

Australians don’t just want more effective government — they want a more active government with the courage to take on ideas, said Moran citing the national attitude research from Essential Media and the Centre for Policy Development, which he chairs, in partnership with Professor Glenn Withers from the Australian National University. The research is expected to be published next month.

The pendulum of public consensus has swung away from a preference for small government and a ruthless approach to cost efficiency, to one where government has a larger role, especially in service delivery, and greater impact. A public service that retains the skills and capability to deliver services directly — an active, collaborative player in nation building, not merely a cash machine for a few mates in the form of lucrative contracts.

The findings also show significant public support for specific reforms to the parliament system to improve probity and accountability to the Australian public. These included a federal corruption commission and allowing citizens to serve on parliamentary committees.

“The starting point for renewing Australian democracy is to reinvest in the creative elements of our public services, enriched as they must be by direct experience of the services that Australians expect government to provide,” Moran told the gathering of Victorian public servants. “On this, the APS has more to learn from state administrations than it seems to realise.”

Two crutches draining the APS of ideas

Moran cautioned the APS is too reliant on consultants and micro-economic ideology, which have prevented the best ideas from rising to the top.

“While there is a critical strategic role for consultants, at a lower level they are just being overused: often engaged at the wrong organisational level and for work the public sector is better placed to deliver.”

While noting the APS remains excellent in areas like national security and its central agencies, and many independent agencies are considered the best of type in the world, Moran said the APS is failing in areas of social policy as capability and experience is stripped from its ranks: “If it were a patient it would be in palliative care. Successive governments haven’t nurtured the APS: they’ve gutted it.”

He called for the government to reinvesting in the capability of the APS to think for itself, offer stewardship and frank advice.

“This isn’t about tinkering with the status quo. It’s about structural, methodical change to the way we do government and challenging the assumptions underpinning our policies. The best ideas, based on the best available evidence, must win out and drive government policies and programs. Right now, slothful economic and fiscal ideology too often blocks the best ideas from breaking through.”

Micro-economic ideology has failed to produce ideas

“Getting back in the game means investing in a [public service] that can think for itself,” Moran said, “not smothering it with a dominant micro-economic paradigm that no longer works and the community no longer supports.

“The economists need to step back and reflect. It is their ideological commitment to micro-economics above all which has created a big gap between the community and government. To solve our problems we need more creative ideas about communities from sociology, psychology and anthropology as well as a better understanding of our history.

“The marriage equality postal survey was a costly demonstration of the inattentiveness of government. What we see in CPD’s attitudes research is the danger of further inattentiveness to failing service delivery systems.”

Employment services also earned a rebuke from Moran for failing to deliver results under an ideologically-driven outsourced program with limited accountability. “Its madness for government to restrict itself to one side of the contract gate, remote from effected communities. We must find a new way.”

Let’s have an inquiry into outsourcing

The reform pathway needs to examine the assumptions driving today’s policies, Moran argued, as independent bodies are already doing in relation to outsourcing and public private partnerships.

“A modern package must emerge that strives to deliver prosperity for all Australians – we might start with an independent commission of inquiry into outsourcing.

“While we’re at it, we should fix national competition policy. Right now, it reinforces oligopolistic market practices, think the energy, banking and finance sectors. It creates a handful of winners and a multitude of losers. Regulation of many areas of social policy should also be required to emphasise service quality and results beyond the financial.”

The CPD’s findings

  • 73% of Australians agreed that politics is “fixated on short-term gains and not on addressing long-term challenges”.
  • One in three Australians (35%) think the main purpose of democracy is “ensuring that all people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable”. This was easily the most popular response.
  • Australians are prepared to pay more for essential services like health, schools, social service payments to the elderly, and economic infrastructure because they benefit the community. This has been a trend for more than two decades. 61% of Australians are still prepared to pay more.
  • Australians are highly sceptical about the outsourcing of social services. 82% want to see government retain skills and capability to deliver these services directly, and view government as a ‘better’ provider of services on most indicators when compared to charities and businesses.
  • People thought the top policy priorities the federal government should pursue are those delivering economic benefit and nation building, such as investing in economic infrastructure, improving job security, boosting wages, investing in R&D and shifting to renewable energy.
  • People believe local governments provide better services and more accurately represent the needs of the community than federal or state governments.
  • Australians have a strong appetite for positive reforms to the form and function of our democracy. 79% supported strengthening the parliamentary code of conduct. 77% supported introducing a federal corruption commission. 68% supported allowing citizens to serve on parliamentary committees.

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