Outsiders Tell How to Fix Australia’s Government Woes
By Ted Smillie on Thursday, October 25th, 2018
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 30 , Issue 10 - ISSN 1325-2070
The Australian Government’s failures are not for want of external advice. Our September 2018 Issue reported on CSIRO’s Data61 Digital Innovation report, which claimed “A focus on eight key digital industries would yield up to $315 billion in economic value”.
Now a 4th October article in The Mandarin by Stephen Easton, The most influential voices outside of government on improving the APS, reports on the influence of the Centre for Strategy and Governance (CSG), noting that “The 20 CSG members are mostly ex-secretaries or deputy secretaries and include two past APS commissioners, Lynelle Briggs and Helen Williams, as well as Ian McPhee, the immediate past auditor-general. Some of the newest to join them are recently departed secretaries Lisa Paul and Gordon de Brouwer, who also sits on the APS Review panel chaired by David Thodey.”
The Stephen Easton article also gives a link to a 12th September article, Andrew Podger’s brilliant reimagining of the Australian Public Service, by Verona Burgess, who says “Podger does not fantasise about the APS as a tabula rasa. His 8800-word submission is a discussion paper in itself, with six main parts: context; capability; culture; operating model; architecture; performance and effective use of taxpayers’ money; and governing legislation.”
Further advice comes in a 25th September Public Digital essay, Making government as a platform real, by Tom Loosemore, who “was one of the founders of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), and spent about five years there helping the UK government understand what it means to be ‘digital’.” The key message is “you actually need to be bold enough to create some new institutions; institutions that are of the internet, not on the internet. As a starting point, they must be public institutions whose culture, practice, business models, skillset, ways of working, ways of thinking are native to the Internet era, not divergent to it.”
The UK’s GDS initiatives had many successes and the Public Digital essay gives 3 specific examples which could be adopted by the Australian Government today. However, in answer to the question “What was the big lesson?”, the reply was this:
“We weren’t bold enough. We weren’t nearly bold enough. Not even close.
Why? Because iterating existing public institutions is not good enough. We have to create new ones. And that requires boldness and political capital.”
Maybe by taking up some of the above advice the Australian Public Service could reduce the level of spending on consultants, criticized in August by the Financial Review and in October at this year’s IPAA national conference. The August Financial Review criticism gives a link to “A separate, and damning, Senate Committee report into the digital delivery of government services.”
That review is by Paul Shetler, “the man brought over from the UK by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead the government’s digital transformation before being shuffled out of the role,”
(Paul Shetler’s views will already be familiar to readers of QESP articles back in 2017, e.g. change, not ‘change management’ , ‘predictable’ government IT disasters, and Award Winning Innovation or High Tech Fantasy? )
The IPAA concerns about the use of consultants is summarized in a 22nd October article by David Donaldson in The Mandarin, Consultants doing core public service work ‘deeply problematic’, says VPS commissioner. The article notes: “Consultants were on the agenda at this year’s IPAA national conference, with panellists pondering politicians’ lack of trust in public servants and the long-term implications of outsourcing strategic function” and “It’s “crazy” that so many ministers trust advice provided by consulting firms more than their own public servants, says the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood.”
Clearly, there has been plenty of expert advice from outsiders. Can David Thodey’s Australian Public Service review get Government to listen? In his Early Reflections 15 August speech at a dinner for the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ conference on the public sector in modern society., David Thodey is optimistic:
“The first point to emphasise is that this review is not about ‘fixing’ the APS. I don’t think it’s broken. The APS has served the Australian public and successive Australian governments very well. This review is about taking time to consider where we think the public service needs to be by, say, 2030-5.”
He concludes that “this review presents a unique opportunity to ensure that our APS is fit-for-purpose for the coming decades.”
In fact, a 23rd October article by Stephen Easton in The Mandarin, APS review: panel member Glyn Davis senses momentum for a major rethink, reports that “Some of the most bold proposals and interesting arguments have come from non-government organisations and representative bodies like the Australian Council of Social Service, he comments, and these demonstrate significant support for a “fundamental re-conceptualisation” of not just the APS, but the relationship between citizens, civil society and government representatives.”. The article gives a link to the full hour-long discussion, which is hosted by the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society’s web page, where there are links to five relevant articles mentioned by the speakers.