Fit for the future? Let's have that conversation

By Carmel McGregor

April 19, 2018

IPAA ACT recently hosted a “Doing Policy Differently” discussion as the first in a series of conversations this year about how fit for purpose the public service is for today and the future. Carmel McGregor reflects on the discussion.

There have been many calls for the Australian Public Service to have this debate, including the recent Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation strategy from Innovation and Science Australia that proposed a review of public services. With a stellar panel including Dr Heather Smith PSM for the keynote and David Thodey AO and Blair Comley PSM as discussants, the conversation did not shy from the challenges ahead.

Heather Smith

Whilst the APS continues to be regarded well globally, we are at an inflexion point. Economic performance is generally sound, but the national mood isn’t sitting at an equally buoyant point. Trust is low, as it is more broadly with the traditional democratic institutions globally.

Coupled with parting shots from retiring Secretaries in their valedictory speeches, concern continues to be raised about the APS’ ability to prosecute deep policy solutions, its reliance on rules and “regulate the way to perfection” and whether or not the APS is positioned structurally or culturally to collaborate as needed to find solutions which satisfy the needs of citizens and government.

Hackneyed concepts of “disruption” (the thing that in my school days would get you a C on your 3rd grade report but is now fashionable) and innovation are seen as ways out of the quagmire.

Heather also pointed to three areas which should/could be explored more assiduously – potentially through a review of the APS.

  1. Structure – do current arrangements work and are they fit for the future? Given the importance of collaboration across boundaries both domestically and globally, are the current constructs an impediment or helper?
  2. Mindset and work practices – again the need to see less bifurcation between the domestic and international challenges. Will the APS be able to navigate this blurry world if the workforce is so static? Less than 2% APS moved in 16/17 and 72% have worked solely in one agency…
  3. Citizens and the community – the importance of the community we serve and need to talk with citizens rather than at them.
42 years since Coombs

It’s hard to disagree with these propositions, but I always scratch my head as these observations (particularly #3) have been perennials since the Coombs review.

And while there have been moments of progress, particularly in the early years of Centrelink, why can’t these lessons be hardwired? Why do we always need to view them as new problems and not even remember that the ground has been trodden before? What a waste of intellectual effort and passion that we don’t leverage from past successes and failures.

I recall comments I made when speaking at the IPAA National Conference in Perth in 2014, where I reflected on this issue, including our inability to learn from those that came before us and our propensity for reinvention. Laura Tingle’s excellent quarterly essay “Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern” in 2015 also reflected on this issue, albeit more eloquently than I did at the time!

As a retired public servant, but active member of IPAA, I have observed rather despondently through these various reviews within APS departments an emergence of starker disconnects between Canberra and their regions, be it through distributed state offices or service delivery networks. This problem is more acute now that it was say ten years ago. In order to connect with the community, the APS in Canberra needs to connect with its own people, 60% of whom work outside of Canberra.

Regarding mobility, the incentive structures need to be stronger and mobility should not just be reliant on patronage and staff following leaders to activate a more varied career.

As the event progressed to questions quite masterfully managed by Frances Adamson, Secretary of DFAT and current IPAA ACT President, young audience members sought to explore the conundrums and challenges of mobility, sought to clarify what role public servants should play in “advocating for citizens” and how and what leadership is required to meet the challenges.

In order to connect with the community, the APS in Canberra needs to connect with its own people, 60% of whom work outside of Canberra.

In response the panel exhorted the importance of learning from others – either other sectors within Australia or through participation in global fora such as the OECD. They equally stressed the importance of understanding and standing true to the ethical core in comprehending and prosecuting the needs of citizens.

All in all, a great conversation. IPAA is keen to continue this debate and welcomes the opportunity for others to contribute views to help respond to the challenges so eloquently outlined by Heather and the panel.

The 2018 IPAA ACT Conference “Fit for the Future?” will be held on Thursday, September 27.

Carmel McGregor PSM is a former senior public servant, including deputy secretary in the Defence and Immigration portfolios, and Deputy Australian Public Service Commissioner. Carmel is currently an adjunct professor at University of Canberra, vice president of IPAA ACT, and a consultant specialising in the areas of organisational culture and leadership.

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