Machinery of government changes are often poorly planned, disruptive and costly, argue a group of UNSW Canberra academics. Their APS review submission outlines five priority areas for reform.
The machinery of government (MoG) reshuffle has become a standard part of a change in government in Australia. It demonstrates that the minister has different priorities to their predecessor and is a nice announceable to show you’re doing something.
But MoG changes are also “disruptive” and “undermine the capacity and capability of the APS to meet core responsibilities and deliver functions in an efficient and effective manner”, argues a submission to the Australian Public Service Review.
“Our research into machinery of government changes suggests that they are frequently enacted but poorly implemented and are, therefore, unlikely to deliver on anticipated gains,” say a group of academics from UNSW Canberra’s Public Service Research Group.
“Our research demonstrates that many MoG changes are highly disruptive, particularly when they involve functions/departments with fundamentally different organisational cultures and they are implemented within a short timeframe. Many MoG changes are implemented in relatively short timeframes, with public servants claiming that inadequate time is devoted to planning, ensuring cultural fit between functions/departments, and implementing the change effectively.
“This means that not only are functions/departments merged that are culturally incompatible, but departments are provided with inadequate time to work through critical differences and establish a plan for how to effectively integrate different cultures.
“As a result, they are unable to provide sufficient consideration to how to establish mechanisms to facilitate integration across disparate groups, often leading to these groups operating in isolation to one another and, therefore, not achieving the anticipated gains.”
These problems are exacerbated for those working in support functions such as finance, IT and human resources, “as this is where personnel are combined and departmental differences in policies, processes, cultures, managerial approaches and so on are most stark”.
Integration problems are often long-lived “due to insufficient time to develop practices to overcome dysfunction induced by structural change”, add authors Professor Deborah Blackman, Associate Professor Helen Dickinson, Dr Karen Gardner, Dr Fiona Buick, Dr Samantha Johnson and Dr Sue Olney.
“This is particularly a problem when departments undergo multiple MoG changes within a short period as they do not have sufficient time to recover from each change before embarking on a new one.”
MoG changes are expensive too, with staff being unable to do their jobs, relocating and working out new operating procedures. These problems are often made worse by a lack of planning and trying to do everything in a rush.
One UK study found the cost of setting up a new department to be at least £15 million in the first year, while a parliamentary committee estimated the cost of Victoria’s post-2014 election MoG to be over $5 million, though the committee complained the figures were rubbery.
Middle manager capability
If the APS is to do well on productivity, innovation and technological change, the factor that will make the biggest contribution “is achieving high performance through the capacity, capability and skills of employees”, the authors argue. Middle management is their biggest area of concern.“The APS must find a way to ensure citizens enjoy the benefits of market models while protecting those vulnerable to market-produced inequities.”
Change management could be improved by middle managers “actively undertaking a change intermediary role where they make sense of the change intent, operationalise it, and provide role clarity for employees,” the submission says. Such a move would help reduce resistance among staff.
“Adopting a change intermediary role would not only reduce resistance to change, but support the introduction and adoption of innovation. However, the research showed that, although the importance of middle managers is recognised, many have undertaken inadequate development, particularly prior to becoming a middle manager, to adequately prepare them for this role.”
Top performers and laggards are often given development opportunities, but those in the middle are often left to “muddle through”. They may be given the chance to act in a role, but whether they are supported to develop their skills in that position is dependent on senior individuals around them, argue the authors. Better embedding and integration of experiential and formal learning would help improve the skill base of the APS.
The fourth industrial revolution
Developments in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality and blockchain have the potential to significantly impact on government work.
However, the authors are concerned governments are doing little to engage with these technologies and are waiting until they become more widespread to think about responding to them.
Public sector implementation capability is already constrained, they argue, so work must be done now to prepare for the future. The academics believe it would be a mistake to wait until there is a public outcry to act, which may lead to a rushed and inadequate response.
The growth of these technologies is of particular concern because of their potential to exacerbate disadvantage for the vulnerable.
Governments have often tried to measure performance through systems that encourage gaming and tunnel vision.
To counter problems stemming from an over-reliance on data, governments are moving towards “more hybrid approaches, aligning different accountability mechanisms both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ to drive improvement across public services”, the authors note.
“These include continuous quality improvement networks and professional approaches that leverage provider legitimacy and authority for using data to achieve desired outcomes; and assurance approaches using public reporting, financial incentives and contractual mechanisms as the stimulus for change.”
More needs to be done to ensure performance is properly measured, however.
“A critical appraisal of the motivations, rewards systems and techniques that underpin different approaches, and the kind of data, system architecture and processes needed to advance implementation and increase adaptive capacity for change is needed.
“We recommend the APS adopt a pragmatic approach that facilitates accountability and improvement at multiple levels if government is to realise the potential of performance measurement systems, particularly as the availability and use of different types of data expands rapidly into the future.”
Fair outcomes for citizens
The widespread use of markets has led to a significant shift in how social services are delivered.
“Yet research shows that while some citizens benefit from these approaches, others are marginalised,” the authors argue.
“Factors that drive inequalities, such as age, gender, level of education, disability, health, access to technology, socioeconomic status, residential location and household structure, emerge as clear fault lines in systems underpinned by these principles and as previously noted, digital government can exacerbate this.”
Institutional architecture — such as the proliferation of public and private stakeholders — can make it more difficult for government coordinate policy effectively.
This trend impacts on the skills required of public servants. It entails “a shift from authority to diplomacy and pragmatism, balancing accountability with experimentation, recognising that context matters, understanding that diversity is crucial to design and implement fair policy, and clear-eyed appraisal of citizens’ experience of government across a broad spectrum of needs and circumstances,” the authors argue.
“To fulfil the social contract between government and citizens, the APS must find a way to ensure citizens enjoy the benefits of market models while protecting those vulnerable to market-produced inequities.”