The head of the Australian Public Service has ramped up his campaign for a more responsive and capability-rich bureaucracy, repeating his critque of agencies that outsource core functions and following through with his earlier pitch for a citizen-satisfaction survey.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will begin conducting regular citizen-satisfaction surveys to gather data on what Australians think about dealing with federal agencies.
Secretary Martin Parkinson presented this as “a way to get to know the public we serve better, to better understand the services people need and what they think of them” in a speech last night at the launch of Public Sector Innovation Month, hosted by the ACT division of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.
He first floated the idea of a “non-partisan” survey at a similar event in December, acknowledging it was also proposed in the 2010 report Ahead of the Game, published by his predecessor Terry Moran.
“Now, it’s true that many agencies have mechanisms to understand user satisfaction in their services,” Parkinson said. “But there’s an obvious gap. There’s no consistent way of understanding the public’s overall experiences and perceptions of the diverse range of services we provide.”
The department has begun designing the survey methodology together with other unnamed “relevant agencies” with the aim of “robust and useful” results, according to Parkinson.
“Transparency will be important and I’m committed to reporting on major results of the survey,” he said. “As I indicated in December last year though, I think the results should only be published with a lag.”
Parkinson argues PM&C and other agencies involved in the project need time to “build a baseline” and analyse the survey results before publishing anything, giving them a chance to filter out “what may well be statistical noise” before considering how to act on the new information.
He hopes the data will help the Australian Public Service develop a more “citizen-centred culture” and earn more public trust. Parkinson said state governments as well as comparable national governments, like those in Canada and New Zealand, had found the practice beneficial.
Later, Parkinson weighed into the debate around consultants and capability decline while taking audience questions, urging agency leaders to make up their own minds about core policy matters.
“I think a number of departments, a number of agencies, abrogated their core responsibility and have become over-reliant on consultants,” he said, standing by his views on outsourcing as reported by journalist Laura Tingle for her 2015 essay, Political Amnesia, which argues there has been a long-term loss of expertise in the APS.
“By all means, use consultants when we need surge capacity,” said Parkinson.
“Use consultants when it’s something [the agency] might not do very often, there’s no-one around the place who is doing it on a regular basis, because we’re all doing it episodically, [and] there are some people outside who have got expertise. By all means, that’s when you go and use them.
“But if you get to the space where you basically hand over thinking about policy development, policy prioritisation, to consultants, then you’ve actually given away your core business. And then you should ask yourself, what are you doing here?”
One might ask how much choice some agency heads have in the matter, after decades of outsourcing, efficiency dividends, the more recent cap on average staffing levels under the current government, and other causes of capability decline put forward in Tingle’s essay.
New Zealand’s new Labour government, incidentally, has just ditched a similar public sector staffing cap policy for this exact reason. NZ State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has argued it created “perverse incentives” and has led to consultants doing the work of public servants too often. In Western Australia, meanwhile, the Liberal opposition has made a very similar argument.
The PM&C chief’s comments were in response to a question from a Safe Work Australia employee in the audience, who asked Parkinson about efforts to move to a more “flexible authorising environment” and flatten rigid hierarchies. She suggested agency leaders often outsourced work that could be done by public servants in-house, and were often unwilling to even consider proposals from public servants who had the necessary skills.
“Well I think it’s a really good question; why is the structure so rigid and hierarchical?” Parkinson replied. “It doesn’t need to be. That comes down to us.”
He gave an example from 1998 of how traditionally, public service leaders had struggled to think outside their stiff boxes: Treasury removed a layer from its structure, meaning its senior executive grades were out of kilter with the rest of the APS.
Other agency executives were not happy with this at all. They worried it would complicate the process of assessing job applicants with experience in Treasury.
“That was absolutely a classic example of lack of imagination on the part of the public service,” said Parkinson.
A video of the event includes the speeches by Parkinson and Heather Smith, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, as well as the candid Q&A session that followed the PM&C secretary’s address.
Top image: RLDI / IPAA ACT Division.