Tom Burton: do we need a public service commission?

By Tom Burton

Tuesday June 5, 2018

John Lloyd’s abrupt resignation as Australian Public Service Commissioner hopefully ends a strained ideological period which saw all sides resort to 70s-style industrial rhetoric and practices, at a time where the public service is facing profound pressure to adapt to the modern world.

Rome is not quite burning, but the preoccupation with the minutiae of terms and conditions at a time of such fundamental change has left the APSC marginalised from the big issues confronting the Australian Public Service.

It is notable that the recently-announced review of the APS by David Thodey is to report to the prime minister through PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson. In what promises to be the biggest shake-up of the APS since the 1970s, Lloyd was formally relegated to a support role.

The APSC has been living on borrowed time since Tony Shepherd’s National Commission of Audit recommended in the run-up to the 2014 budget that the commission be folded into the departments of Employment and Finance.

Tony Shepherd

Shepherd — supported by former central agency mandarins Peter Boxall and Tony Cole — argued that, in a period of rapid change, it was better to give secretaries and agency CEOs flexibility “to strategically manage their organisations, to develop future leaders, to drive productivity, pursue innovation and better deliver on the government’s agenda.”

Pushback from ‘One APS’ movement

Canberra’s agency heads already have significant managerial responsibility and authority over their staff, and the 2014 recommendation were largely seen as a push back from the “One APS” movement championed by Kevin Rudd’s head of PM&C, Terry Moran. This saw the Public Service Commission’s mandate to lead and monitor developments in agency capacity and overall public sector performance strengthened.

A preoccupation with the role and powers of a largely internal agency of state might seem to outsiders a classic case of public service deck-chair shifting. But the question of how to drive fundamental whole-of-government change, and the design of any centralised agency to make it all happen, is very much a key question for the Thodey review.

Governments across the world have been challenged about how best to drive the rapid transformation needed if the public sector is to remain relevant in this period of deep societal change. State and federal governments in Australia have bolstered central agency mandates to drive transformation, with major focuses on customer service improvement and the related integration of services.

Citizens don’t want to have to navigate an alphabet soup of agencies when their child is born or a parent passes away. It is this inevitable fusing of the underlying systems to support so-called joined-up services, that is driving the need for strong whole of government vision and leadership.

We have already seen the emergence of major service platforms offering literally hundreds of services from one portal — and begging the question what role the agencies that traditionally delivered these services now play (eg the mammoth road authorities).

Governments have real choices about what role they undertake in this new world of data empowered, platform government. Uber and Airbnb are virtual enterprises, an approach governments would almost certainly adopt if we were starting all over again.

This begs the question of what role the big federal portfolios and state-based clusters play if the underlying information management and data systems are going to be inevitably unified into an at-scale, intelligent cross-government data layer.

How best to drive transformation has centred very much around the role of the equivalents of the Digital Transformation Agency. In the US, there have been various centralised approaches to service innovation and reform, ranging from skunkworks-type approaches (known as 18F) to White House-mandated initiatives. Similarly in the UK, the central Government Digital Service has prosecuted much of the early digitisation of the civil services.

The jury remains out as to the best approach. In Canberra, the DTA has already been through two different approaches — with the elephant in the room being how to best to herd the large portfolio delivery agencies such as Human Services, the ATO, Home Affairs and Defence into a cohesive and effective, all-of-government play.

Central versus the edge

Australia’s decade-long public policy dance around the critical issue of digital identity is an example of the problems that occur when power is dispersed and no single agency is mandated to deeply reconsider the fundamental roles of government. Thodey’s panel will no doubt try to give this some shape, but it is demonstrably true that it is those countries (Singapore, New Zealand, Israel, Estonia etc) which have created strong mandated visions for digital government that are now seen as the poster children of modern intelligent public service.

This is not just a technology question. In NSW, there have been impressive results from that government’s focus on centralised premier-endorsed goals. Answering directly to the premier, the Premier’s Implementation Unit has brought a sharp focus to delivering on tightly-calibrated goals. The goals cover a broad remit, ranging from cuts in repeat family violence offenders, to reduction in litter goals, and have created a strong culture around service and driving better customer outcomes.

The model was adopted from the UK, where Sir Michael Barber was instrumental in promoting this style of high-level implementation oversight as a way of cutting through the fundamental bureaucratic malaise that so plagues vast amounts of public administration.

Ditto in Victoria, where the Department of Premier and Cabinet has been seeking to provide much more leadership from the centre, not without some push back from the big clusters.

But dive into the engine room of government — the people in Canberra known as the EL managers and their staff — and you will find a litany of complaints about the fundamental distrust the SES has for the managers and workers who have to make it all happen. Deeply hierarchical, risk averse and driven half-mad by the constant gyrations of often clueless political leadership, it is this group which have to fight the treacle of so-called modern public administration every day.

The paradox is that this group yearn to be free from the relentless central agency promulgations and reporting and to be left to their own designs in setting up their own workplace cultures and practices.

This issue is not just a public sector challenge. Almost every large enterprise is struggling with how to empower their edge while driving strong strategic change through the centre.

Technology gives real choices for how public agencies design their workplaces. But at a time where the public sector is struggling to attract millennial talent, it is critical to reconsider the overall public sector control model — including the role of public service commissions. Part of this discussion is what role the commissions play around building much needed digital capability, with the APSC for example, now sponsoring a major digital change program for senior executives.

This is equally a question for both sides of politics, with much of Labor’s derision for Lloyd’s strong industrial stance clouding its thinking about the role of the APSC — let alone the bigger transformation challenge Labor will need to get very serious about in the run-up to the next election. This will inevitably mean distancing itself from the demands of the powerful public sector unions and their reluctance to embrace fundamental change.

APS under review: David Thodey asked to pick up where Nugget Coombs left off
Coombs 42 years on — looking back at the review that shaped the APS
The new APS review isn’t everything that former mandarins were calling for
APS review a neoliberal stitch-up, says CPSU

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