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The blueprint for the total overhaul of government you’ve never heard of

With tentacles that reach far across portfolio, federal, state and private sector lines, Bill Ferris has given the Prime Minister a blueprint for government reform that could be interpreted as ‘enough rope’. That it is tied so explicitly to innovation spells trouble, writes Verona Burgess.

When the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, was welcoming her colleague, Industry, Innovation and Science secretary Heather Smith to the stage in Canberra on March 22, she mentioned the recent Australia 2030 Prosperity Through Innovation plan.

Adamson, who was hosting the event as the president of the influential ACT division of the Institute of Public Administration, said that many of the audience would have read the plan.

“What?” muttered some of them. “Never heard of it”.

No innovation stone unturned

The 131-page plan, by Innovation and Science Australia and, chaired by Bill Ferris (the ISA deputy chair is Chief Scientist Alan Finkel) and released in January, presents a daunting task.

It is thoroughly researched, accompanied by a 158-page report on stakeholder consultations and evidently leaves no innovation stone unturned.

There are 30 recommendations grouped under five “imperatives”, each so huge and aspirational that they risk reading like motherhood statements. They are:

  • Education (“respond to the changing nature of work by equipping all Australians with skills relevant to 2030”);
  • Industry (“ensure Australia’s ongoing prosperity by stimulating high-growth firms and improving productivity”);
  • Government (“become a catalyst for innovation and be recognised as a global leader in innovative service delivery”);
  • Research and Development (“improve research and development effectiveness by increasing translation and commercialisation of research”);
  • Culture and Ambition (“enhance the national culture of innovation by launching ambitious national missions”).

Under each imperative are lists of “strategic opportunities for government”.

For example, under “government”, there are five: “a flexible regulatory environment that supports innovation could be achieved through collaboration between Australian governments; investors can be encouraged to pursue opportunities that generate both financial and social returns; the use of open data would be accelerated by improving access and usefulness; national innovation can be stimulated by using government procurement as a strategic lever; [and] Australia’s innovation investment and talent can be strengthened by improving access to global talent pools and fostering greater gender and ethnic diversity.”

Under “education”, there are two: “teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and 21st-century skills can be improved through development for teachers and school leaders, and education inequality can be reduced through targeted interventions; [and]  Australia’s vocational education and training [VET] system can be made responsive to the new priorities presented by innovation.”

‘Very courageous, Prime Minister’

Eventually, the reader gets to case studies and the recommendations. There may only be 30, but many have tentacles that reach so far across portfolio, federal, state and private sector lines that it would seem impossible for any Commonwealth government to implement the entire plan in practical terms. It would at least be “very courageous, Prime Minister.”

Take recommendation 4, one of two on vocational education and training, which says, “Task the Australian Government Department of Education and Training to undertake a review of (VET) and report back within 12 months on a strategy to make the sector increasingly responsive to new priorities presented by innovation, automation and new technologies; ensuring the Australian VET system will be internationally competitive in the provision of initial skills training, in supporting a life of learning and helping businesses to compete, and ensuring VET interfaces and intersects productively with other parts of the higher education system; recommendations for metrics of VET success to be evaluated by 2022, including via surveys of employers regarding skills relevance, actual completion rates and employment on graduation; [and] increasing the amount and granularity of information made available to students.”

Amen to that but here’s the problem, and not just about getting VET back on the rails after the VET FEE-HELP scandal. A classic risk with reports of such vast scope is that either they will be ignored, or the government of the day will simply cherry-pick a few ideas and happily distort them.

Just think of the Henry tax review – and that’s only tax policy, not a spider’s web of everything that can be pegged to innovation.

APS review wouldn’t start from here

Adamson herself did a teeny, tiny bit of cherry-picking of the Australia 2030 Prosperity Through Innovation plan, which, she said, “proposes a possible review of the [Australian Public Service,” she said. “If the government does decide to proceed with the review, we hope that this important discussion from IPAA is a useful contribution to the discussion that needs to occur.”

She’s right – the IPAA series, including Smith’s speech, is absolutely useful.

But the plan itself recommended that such a review be conducted through the prism of innovation, saying in Recommendation 18: “Conduct a review of the Australian Government Public Service with the aim of enabling a greater role and capability for innovation in policy development, implementation and service delivery. This work complements, and could be connected with, the work of the Secretaries Australian Public Service Reform Committee.”

No root and branch review of the APS should be seen primarily through this prism even though there is every need to make the public service fit for the future. Indeed, whoever drafts the terms of reference might remember the old adage, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Fortunately, the Public Service Act 1999, which doesn’t rate a mention in the innovation plan, would help tether would-be reformists to the earth.

Verona Burgess is a long-time reporter and columnist on the Australian Public Service. Her column appears in The Mandarin each Wednesday.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.