TERRY MORAN. Back in the game. Part 2 of 2.

Active and effective government

I want to highlight two messages from the attitudes research that I referred to in Part 1.  First, the health of our democracy can’t be divorced from the health of our public institutions and our public sector.  Second, getting back in the game means investing in an Australian Public Service (and a Victorian Public Service) that can think for itself, not smothering it with a dominant microeconomic paradigm that no longer works and the community no longer supports.  

(This speech, posted in two parts, was the IPAA Victoria Oration, 21 November 2017.)

The economists need to step back and reflect. It is their ideological commitment to micro economics above all which has created a big gap between the community and government. To solve our problems we need more creative ideas about communities from sociology, psychology and anthropology as well as a better understanding of our history.

The marriage equality postal survey was a costly demonstration of the inattentiveness of government. What we see in CPD’s attitudes research is the danger of further inattentiveness to failing service delivery systems.

Nowhere is this clearer than employment services.

In its 2015 report, Grand Alibis, CPD demonstrated how

delivering results for the most job-ready Australians but parking our most vulnerable jobseekers in outsourced and poorly accountable employment services created yet another two-speed delivery system. Ideology has Trumped results again.

Two years on and the current Jobactive system is no better, with less than half of all jobseekers finding sustainable employment outcomes. The big winners have not been job seekers or employers, but the private companies and large charities winning the government contracts and the profits they deliver.

It’s madness for government to restrict itself to one side of the contract gate, remote from effected communities. We must find a new way.

Finding a reform pathway means taking on unproven assumptions driving today’s policies. We still have an unhealthy reliance on neoliberal microeconomic reform and outsourced services. Even the Productivity Commission concedes problems. The UK Institute for Government questions the worth of the Public Finance Initiative (on which our PPPs are based) and notes the lack of evaluation. We are in the same position.

A modern package must emerge that strives to deliver prosperity for all Australians – we might start with an independent commission of inquiry into outsourcing.

While we’re at it, we should fix national competition policy. Right now, it reinforces oligopolistic market practices, think the energy, banking and finance sectors. It creates a handful of winners and a multitude of losers. Regulation of many areas of social policy should also be required to emphasise service quality and results beyond the financial.

Australians want government to be active and collaborative players, not just investors. Funding must be connected with joined up local service delivery, and delivery must be reconnected with an ethic of public service.

Government must seek tailored, smart, creative solutions that draw on the experience of civil society, business and the public. They must admit they don’t have all the answers and organise the search for them. And they must work across departments and other levels of government to find the best entry points.

Shadow Minister for Finance, Jim Chalmers, gave a speech at the ANU last week that suggested the Federal Opposition are already considering similar principles if they win government. The Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, has also been prepared to consider new approaches to settlement services for refugees, especially in helping refugees to find jobs faster.

Getting the APS back in the game

The Australian Public Service is less than half of all Commonwealth public sector employment and it remains excellent in many areas – national security, central agencies. Outside the public service many of the agencies, such as the macro economic regulators, are rightly considered as amongst the best of type in the world.

The reality, however, is that the APS is failing in areas of social policy because it has been stripped of specialist capability and service delivery experience. If it were a patient it would be in palliative care. Successive governments haven’t nurtured the APS: they’ve gutted it.

Australia needs a new way, but the best ideas won’t rise to the top without the stewardship and advice of the public sector.

They won’t rise to the top by outsourcing advice to consultants, either. While there is a critical strategic role for consultants, at a lower level they are just being overused: often engaged at the wrong organisational level and for work the public sector is better placed to deliver. It’s like writing to Santa Claus without knowing what you want, how old you are, or whether you’ve been (or want to be) naughty or nice.

Reinvesting in policy memory and capability, encouraging frank advice, and improving service delivery know-how is the way forward if the APS is to think for itself and be the crucible for reform that it can and must be for Australia to thrive.

As Paul Keating reminded us last week in his CEDA address, the best ideas for Australia will require imagination and real courage.

This isn’t about tinkering with the status quo. It’s about structural, methodical change to the way we do government and challenging the assumptions underpinning our policies. The best ideas, based on the best available evidence, must win out and drive government policies and programs.

Right now, slothful economic and fiscal ideology too often blocks the best ideas from breaking through. 

 Social license for governments as well as business

Social license is the buzzword in business these days. Australian companies have started to realise that their value creation has been out of step with community attitudes.

The social licence under which business operates is in desperate need of renewal, otherwise hostility to markets and to openness will grow.

By the same token, social license and legitimacy are non-negotiables for governments, and right now both are in short supply.

The same can’t be said of the judiciary, especially the High Court, which remains one of our most trusted institutions (along with the ABC). The oft-cited line from the Privy Council, “in a federal system, the absolute independence of the Judiciary is the bulwark of the Constitution against encroachment whether by the Legislature or the Executive” rang true in its decision on the “Citizenship Seven”.

Too often we forget, however, that the independence of the public service is also the bulwark of any government, especially when its social license – its legitimacy – is questioned.

If the APS isn’t funded and empowered to think for a living and advise accordingly, Australia and her governments suffer.

Now it’s time for the APS to get back in the game, at a time when digitisation might lead some to suggest it can retreat further from it. Quite the opposite. Digitisation can be used in a way that helps improve service delivery across government and helps government understand the patterns of need in the community.

Digitisation is no substitute, however, for personal engagement in the lives of Australians. There is no algorithm or bot for that. Too much reliance on digital approaches will make it harder for the disadvantaged and make government less attentive to the social and human consequences of government programs.

My argument tonight is that Australian public administration is more than capable of rising to the challenges.

But this will require a new approach – much more than reforms to systems and processes. We need fresh ideas. Big bold ideas. Ideas which can drive new policies and the programs to foster a more sustainable economy and greater wellbeing across society.

Above all, the starting point for renewing Australian democracy is to reinvest in the creative elements of our public services, enriched as they must be by direct experience of the services that Australians expect government to provide.

On this last point, the APS has more to learn from state administrations than it seems to realise. Thank you.

Terry Moran AC is a former Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria and Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He is Chair of the Centre for Policy Development

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3 Responses to TERRY MORAN. Back in the game. Part 2 of 2.

  1. j austen says:

    Thank you for two interesting articles. While not knowing the ins and outs of public administration, I make three observations from transport:

    1. the difference between public servant as adviser and public servant as representative of government has become less clear.
    2. there is an increasingly evident and accepted practice of public servants misleading others. the road charging debate provides some, not the only, notable examples.
    3. these matters, once restricted to a few rare instances in some states, are more common, extend to the Commonwealth and can involve ‘central agencies’.
    Issues arising from and for the Commonwealth, whose executive power was recently curtailed, are noticeable eg. Ignoring limits of jurisdiction or responsibilities within its jurisdiction.
    Given public expectations of the Commonwealth as exemplar, is there a particular problem here extending beyond prevailing economic or social philosophies? How can ‘reform’ address such matters? Is a corruption commission sufficient?
    Again thank you for thought provoking pieces.

    John Austen

  2. Fergus McPherson says:

    Thanks Terry for maintaining the rage down through the decades. Let us hope the deficiencies of the mainstreamed fantasies are now obvious even to the vested sectional interests who have benefitted so much. So obvious that the real interests and priorities of the vast majority will finally become the focus of political parties.
    With gratitude, Fergus McPherson

  3. Julian says:

    Thank you Terry for your excellent analysis of what needs to be done for the better health of our public institutions and our public sector. Remedial action is overdue.

    You correctly refer to the demise of “institutional memory” (an incalculable loss) and also to “…specialist capability and service delivery experience.”

    One small quibble – you say: “The marriage equality postal survey was a costly demonstration of the inattentiveness of government.” To my mind it was more than mere inattentiveness, it was a dereliction, an abandonment of the government’s duty to govern on behalf of the federation; to fully debate and to pass legislation that may affect us all – but then later to actually suspend Parliament for a week, as if there was nothing worth the government’s attention was an act of contempt for the electors.

    While one can only hope that the federal ALP would, upon attaining government, be mindful of the matters to which you refer, it seems to me that to achieve the changes that you recommend would take probably more than one term of government – and we now know how unscrupulous the present government would likely be when placed in Opposition.

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