Blast from the past: Palaszczuk asks 1990s public service reformer to define future state

By Stephen Easton

Monday July 23, 2018

The Queensland government wants to know what “the public sector of tomorrow” will look like and has asked Peter Coaldrake, who ran the Goss government’s Public Sector Management Commission in the 1990s.

But first, he has to start with the simpler task of reviewing the state’s public sector workforce data collection system.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the review on Friday along with the latest quarterly figures, showing an increase of 4300 full-time equivalents over the March quarter, as well as a long-awaited draft report from KPMG on how to improve service delivery and performance management, which the government received a year ago.

Peter Coaldrake

Palaszczuk said she wants Coaldrake, who is better known these days as a former vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, to propose more useful ways of collecting and analysing data on the state-employed workforce. One aim is to shed more light on the use of labour hire, contractors and consultants.

His terms of reference state that “a clear understanding of, and agreement on, current public sector workforce numbers, costs, and occupation groups (i.e. work definitions) is required” and refer to the latest budget papers, where “it is acknowledged that issues have existed for many years and across governments with collecting and reporting information about Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) in the Queensland public service”.

“These issues have arisen primarily due to the existence of two methodologies to calculate the number of FTEs, and scope of agencies included within the reported numbers.”

The government has been under fire from the opposition over growth in public service numbers since soon after the change of government in February 2015, as well as for delays in the publication of both the quarterly workforce data and the KPMG report.

The government employed about 196,856 full-time equivalents as of December 2014, under the Liberal-National Party government that shed about 14,000 in total through redundancies.

An increase of 4553 FTEs over the next three months brought the total up to 201,409 in March 2015, a month after Palaszczuk was elected. From that point to the end of March this year, a further 16,199 FTEs had been added, the cost of employing them expected to account for about 47% of this financial year’s state budget.

This growth is much faster than the state’s population growth over that period, but the government frames it as reversing reductions under its predecessors, as well as maintaining service delivery performance standards.

This is where Coaldrake’s data collection review comes in, Palaszczuk said on Friday, with reference to a new set of six overarching state priorities she announced last month, in line with a trend in public administration towards setting a small number of clear priorities and publicly reporting against related performance indicators.

According to the review’s ToR, the professor has been asked to consider how the government can continue “restoring front-line services in accordance with election commitments while maintaining sustainable growth in expenses” as well as advise on workforce composition.

New ways to highlight seasonal fluctuations, describe occupational groups and compare Qld with other jurisdictions are also on the list, as well as better ways of reporting public sector workforce data along geographical lines.

“Queensland is the most decentralised state in Australia, with 188 hospitals and health facilities and more than 1,240 schools,” the Premier said in a statement.

“The scale of that delivery means it’s essential we have the most up to date and useful information possible about where we are providing services to Queenslanders, and how we are providing them.

“Queenslanders work hard for the tax dollars they pay, and they deserve to know that money is being used in the most efficient way possible to build new schools, employ more nurses and upgrade our road network.”

To that end, she said, Coaldrake has been asked to consider how government service delivery might need to change, and what skills and training public servants would therefore require — while making it clear that providing “secure jobs” to people working for the state remained a key priority.

The ToR also begin by stating that the Labor government values the “tireless efforts of … hardworking public servants” and wants the public service to be an “employer of choice” with highly developed skills.

The document also recognises “the sector is experiencing a period of rapid disruption, brought about by advances in technology, demographic shifts and changes in consumer markets” and suggests citizens increasingly want 24-hour access to online government services.

“Communities have increasingly complex needs in the most decentralised Australian State and there is the ability to intervene where it was previously not possible (because we now have the data, the technology, the skills etc.). These factors are driving an increasingly professional and more highly specialised frontline.”

These deeper issues will be considered in a second phase of the review, the aim of which is to define “the public sector of tomorrow” following Coaldrake’s recommendations on the more immediate workforce reporting changes.

He has been asked to deliver an issues paper to Palaszczuk and her Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad by August 16, and a final set of recommendations due before the Mid Year Fiscal and Economic Review in December.

KPMG report: correlation does not prove causation

Trad said Coaldrake’s review would also look at whether there was enough transparency and accountability under the present regime. Palaszczuk’s critics have portrayed the year-long delay in releasing the KPMG report as an example of the government hiding embarrassing information, but its contents aren’t especially damaging.

Most of the firm’s advice goes towards a modern whole-of-government performance management framework, using the Better Public Services initiative put in place by the former New Zealand government as a key exemplar.

“The KPMG report shows there is a link between increases in front-line health, education and policing services and improved outcomes for the community,” said the Premier.

The report says outcomes have generally been maintained as demand for services has grown but also notes “it is challenging to draw meaningful insight about performance from direct correlation analysis alone due to the complexity of service delivery mechanism and the influence of external forces”.

“For example, improved health outcomes are unlikely to be driven only by the number of nurses or doctors employed, but are also a result of a number of external influences, such as individual behavioural and lifestyle factors, socio-economic status, and bio-medical and genetic factors,” states the executive summary.

The consultants also note that correlations between inputs and outcomes are of only limited use, “at best a first-step” towards understanding public sector performance. Its recommendations are broadly in line with current trends in public administration — clearly and publicly define priorities and report against them, actively push for higher performance and more joined-up approaches across the bureaucracy, and make sure leaders are accountable.

The final of four recommendations advises the government:

“Create clear roles, accountabilities and responsibilities – there is an opportunity to reflect the performance management system in Ministerial Charter Letters and CEO performance agreements and to cascade accountability down through agencies.”

The recently announced set of Queensland’s Priorities was a direct response to the consultants’ recommendations.

“The KPMG report also informed some important decision-making as part of our budget process,” said Palaszczuk.

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