Out with the old west, in with the new: McGowan's public sector rebuild underway

By Stephen Easton

February 26, 2018

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan has improbably declared that “a new culture has been established across government” just under one calendar year after his election, and after more than eight years in opposition.

McGowan now has the last major piece of his massive public sector renewal program in place — the special inquiry led by John Langoulant that was released last week, blasting the Barnett government’s financial decision-making and arguing it had sidelined Treasury for years to the state’s detriment.

Most experts on the subject would probably enjoy a hearty laugh at the suggestion that a new boss comes in, snaps their fingers, and a new organisational culture is born — but perhaps McGowan was comparing the culture in his cabinet to that of the former government, rather than commenting on a wider public-sector culture, which could not be created anew in one year.

“Ministers have led from the front, instilling a level of financial discipline not seen for many years at a ministerial level in Western Australia,” McGowan said in a set-piece response to the highly politicised inquiry.

“A new culture has been established across government and further changes will be implemented in line with the recommendations of the Special Inquiry, with the implementation team led by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.”

The government accepts nearly all the recommendations from Langoulant, who led the Treasury Department under governments of both major political parties from 1995 to 2004, and says it “has already initiated a number of changes” that line up with his recommendations.

It will implement the special inquiry recommendations in a four-stage process — the first being what they have already done — together with the other key elements of its broad plan to renovate the structures and modernise the processes of government, such as machinery-of-government changes and its response to the Service Priority Review.

Agencies are already sticking to tighter rules around cabinet submissions, according to the official response, and various working groups of agency heads and committees like the “public sector leadership council” have been established, along with new cabinet sub-committees and “state industry consortia” for creative industries, tourism, international education, the defence industry, aquaculture and agriculture.

Machinery-of-government changes are being bedded down, the premier’s department has a new public sector reform unit working away, there are cross-departmental working groups and steering committees to govern major projects.

“Models of working which encourage Directors General and departments to work in a more collaborative manner” is on the list of recommended changes that are listed as “underway” in the response.

There is a lot more that is yet to come stemming specifically from the Langoulant recommendations, including a new “transparency framework” to keep the public informed about how major projects are tracking. Of course, it remains to be seen if that means the new government will be significantly more upfront than its predecessor if big budgets blow out and things go awry.

The response confirms that the auditor-general will get the power to look over “cabinet documents and documents subject to legal professional privilege” and there will be new guidelines around how the commercial-in-confidence label is applied to documents concerning public expenditure.

Government-owned enterprises and corporations will be subject to stronger governance and oversight legislation and the government will ask their boards “to adopt higher standards of accountability and reporting on the progress of major projects”, according to the response.

As for the public sector in general, the response confirms the government wants to “foster a more collaborative working relationship between central agencies which supports line agencies and [government trading enterprises] to enhance their skills and capabilities” and develop common standards for business cases in the WA government.

McGowan will also establish a centrally-coordinated public sector graduate program, instead of leaving that up to individual agencies, which could help to bring in a fresh wave of younger public servants.

The WA branch of the Australian Society of Archivists has also issued its own take on the Langoulant recommendations, suggesting it is slightly sceptical that all the issues identified will be easily addressed.

“The reform agenda from Langoulant is bigger than fixing fiscal, financial and project management failures,” the ASA’s WA branch convener Pauline Joseph said in a statement on Thursday.

“Some governance and systems failures identified with the Barnett Government were first identified in the 1990s and were the subject of reform recommendations from the Commission on Government in the same period.”

“The fact is that we have been here before. There is a huge sense of deja vu in reading the Langoulant reports. We have been here before with the Royal Commission into WA Inc and Commission on Government.”

According to Joseph, last week’s three-volume inquiry report “clearly shows that outsourcing and repeated workforce downsizing of the records and information management functions has resulted in a huge capability gap in the delivery of records, data and information management with clear accountability implications for the WA Government”.

The society argues the McGowan government has begun “accelerating” this issue through the recent merger of the State Records Office with the State Library, which the ASA state branch strongly opposed.

“This action was done in apparent ignorance of recommendations of the WA Inc Royal Commission and Commission on Government, which had identified two decades earlier the scope for failures in records, document and data management of the kind identified by Langoulant,” said Joseph.

“It should not be a time for cherry picking reforms for political gain, all of the recommendations for Langoulant should be carefully examined and comprehensive capability audits undertaken including the area of records, data and information management.

The State Records Office and State Records Commission have been consistently underfunded and under resourced to carry out their functions under the State Records Act, 2000.”

The ASA would like to know if Langoulant’s inquiry consulted the Records Commission or the SRO, its administrative support agency, and whether the new government will “increase audits and scrutiny of record-keeping practices of government or provide other means of assisting government organisations” to strengthen information management.

It also questions if either the Records Commission or the SRO is equipped to provide appropriate training across the public sector in information management practices.

Correction: an earlier version of this article attributed the above quotes from ASA WA branch convener Pauline Joseph to the branch president Julia Mant.

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