Get ready for more disruption: Parkinson floats national citizen survey

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday December 12, 2017

The APS is delivering more than ever, now get ready for more disruption, says the head of the Australian Public Service.

“2017 has certainly been a, quote, busy and, quote, interesting, unquote, year,” Dr Martin Parkinson said to sympathetic laughs as he began his annual address to the service on Monday night, hosted by the APSC and IPAA ACT.

In public perception, it has been a shocking year for the Australian government. The secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet however alluded to only a couple of those issues in passing: the sudden and detailed understanding of section 44 of the Australian Constitution that the public and politicians now possess, and the backlash over the handling of Australia’s digital-first Census.

There were also achievements, or at least progress towards achievements — more than any period since the Second World War, Parkinson claimed. His highlights includes major infrastructure like the NBN, inland rail, Western Sydney Airport, and planning of Snowy 2.0. Australia is building a sovereign national Defence industry. In social programs, the APS is rolling out the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Indigenous procurement and data driven reforms to improve services in health, education and welfare. Work has also commenced on much-needed constitutional reforms.

In talent and record, the APS has a lot to be proud of, Parkinson said, pointing to its third place on an international index of Civil Service Effectiveness — behind Canada and New Zealand, but ahead of the UK, the US, the always enviable Scandinavian countries, Sweden, Norway and Finland. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“There is a steep challenge ahead of us … if we’re going to remain relevant and attuned to the Australian public; if we’re going to be the source of bold and imaginative thinking to respond to the demands of changing times.

“Any good public servant should be well read and well informed. Understand the larger context in which your contribution will take place. Think big. Aim high. Experiment. Be ruthless. Ask the simple questions if something is not working.”

Now comes the hard part: a regular citizen survey

The nation’s top public servant had three questions for each person in the APS for 2018.

  1. How well do you know the public you serve?
  2. Are you ready for disruption?
  3. What’s your big idea? What big policy idea or program could you achieve for Australia?

Dr Parkinson wrapped up his own answers to all three with one big, almost-new idea to reconnect the APS with the Australian public. Diversity efforts, engagement and data reforms are still important, and the government is “yet to really grapple with the opportunity to genuinely engage people online – rather than simply using online platforms as a way of pushing out information”, but even all that isn’t enough he says.

“I think a case can be made for the APS to conduct a regular, non-partisan citizens’ survey, as recommended by Terry Moran’s 2010 public sector reform blueprint, Ahead of the Game.

“If it’s non-political, and focused on citizens’ experience of, and engagement with, the APS, I think this would both help us frame policy better and alert us to where programs or other interventions are failing.”

Secretaries and commissioners at the APS End of Year Annual Address for 2017.

“Now, I’m not underestimating the challenges here,” Dr Parkinson added, “or the criticism likely to come my way if we did this.

“But to support the idea that the APS could undertake such regular surveys, while remaining non-partisan, I think it would be important to make the survey results publicly available, albeit perhaps with a lag.”

Such a risky endeavour certainly isn’t some Parkinson or PM&C could achieve alone, so he’s ‘thrown it out’ simply as an idea.

The hardest hit agency

To underscore his push about trying new things, especially those that entail risk of failure or hearing uncomfortable thing, Dr Parkinson gave a unique shout-out to an individual, and agency, that copped it the hardest in 2017.

No other agency has had quite the year that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has had, the inverse of its small footprint. Eyes landed uncomfortably on its boss, Australian Statistician David Kalisch, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared on national television that Census night — when millions of Australians headed to the ABS website but found it unresponsive — wasn’t the time to decide “whose heads will roll”.

That ultimately no heads did roll only marginally soothed concerns across the public service about the implication — or rather the threat — that officials are easy sacrificial lambs when trying new, better ways of doing things don’t go smoothly.

“The Census was a concern,” Parkinson admitted for the first time in public on Monday, “but that has to be set against the consummate job the ABS did in delivering the Australian marriage law postal survey.” He credited the high participation of the survey both to the public’s desire to have the issue resolved and also to the professionalism of the ABS.

Images by RLDI, courtesy of the Institute for Public Administration Australia.

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