The performance of National Cabinet has been the administrative success story of the pandemic. Cooperative and decisive action at the top of our federation has been crucial to successful management of the virus. It is clear that National Cabinet should continue until current restrictions have been removed. But what then?
Managing our Federation
It would be naïve to expect that National Cabinet could operate the same way after the crisis ends. As normality resumes our messy federation will return to the hard task of managing often overlapping responsibilities in a context of competing policy and financial priorities. The shared focus which has driven the success of National Cabinet will disappear.
But, as with parliament, an opportunity exists to harness the lessons of the pandemic to chart a better course for our federation.
Given the success of National Cabinet, there would be merit in Australian governments commissioning a review of its operations to identify lessons for the future. The temptation to undertake this review in-house should be resisted. Instead, governments should commission an expert group to conduct an independent public review.
One factor the review should reflect on, is the respect National Cabinet has shown to the underlying responsibilities of each jurisdiction. On the surface at least, National Cabinet decisions have sought to complement and inform jurisdictional responsibilities rather than usurp them. This has allowed for collaboration based on common commitment rather than politics or the size of the commonwealth cheque book. If nothing else, capturing this one lesson would stand us in good stead for the future.
The operation of Executive Government
As it looks today, most Australians seem to feel that the executive governments of Australia have performed well through the pandemic.
In one sense this is an amazing turnaround. It was not so long ago where dis-satisfaction with government was the norm. But at times of crisis people look to government for succour; the pandemic has been no different.
It has not been perfect, of course. Differences of view reasonably exist on the path Australia has taken and should be taking. Mistakes have been made. And it is possible, even likely, that hindsight will raise questions about elements of the overall strategy. But satisfaction outweighs concern for the time being.
One feature of pandemic has been the prominent role played by public servant experts in influencing policy and communicating with the public. This is normal in crisis situations. Earlier this year emergency services commissioners were playing a similar role during the bushfires.
Underneath this, has been an increased reliance from ministers on the broader policy, administrative and delivery expertise of Australian public services. People often labelled unflatteringly as bureaucrats have become an important source of ideas, advice and action. And as the role of public servants has changed, so has another – that of the ministerial advisers.
Deeper still, are changes in the way ministers and departments have been working together to solve common problems that extend beyond the boundaries of individual portfolios. Collaboration rather than patch protection and competition has characterised behaviour within executive government. While collaboration inside government occurs much more often than popularly assumed, this still feels like a novel experience.
Once again it would be naïve to think that the behaviours of today will extend forcefully beyond the crisis. Government needs a healthy level of internal contest if it is to properly consider and balance the many competing priorities and views within our society. As normality returns, we can expect (and should welcome) more contest within government.
But, as with other areas, a complete return to normal would miss some lessons the crisis has brought.
Four lessons, in particular, should guide the future structures and behaviours of executive government.
The first is ensuring that the critical role expertise plays in underpinning sound decision-making continues once the crisis is over. Utilising the expertise provided by emergency services commissioners or chief medical officers has been clearly valuable in responding to the challenges we have faced through both the pandemic and the bushfires.
It is inevitable that the value of this narrow expertise will lessen as government returns to the much larger range of competing priorities it normally faces. But the value of the broader policy and delivery expertise provided by the public service (in particular) will not. Investing in the on-going capability of the public service to play an active positive role in supporting government decision making should be a priority moving forward. Government should also look at how best to ensure that the flexibility shown in redeploying public service staff during the crisis can continue after it ends.
The second relates to the improving clarity around the roles of, and support for, ministerial office staff. This is a longstanding issue but has been highlighted again by the crisis. Ministerial staff play a key, but poorly defined, role in executive government. It is time to put a professionalised structure in place to bring appropriate certainty to the boundaries and responsibilities of the adviser role, and to provide proper professional support to the people playing these important roles.
The third relates to the balance between contest and collaboration within executive government. A return to more contest is desirable, but so is a capturing of the structures and behaviours that have underpinned the more focussed decision making we have seen during the crisis. A reflection on how the internal structures and processes of government best capture this balance would be a worthwhile investment.
The final lesson relates to building the trustworthiness of government. The clear but fragile trust Australians are showing government will be harder to retain as we move into the next phase of decision-making.
As we move forward, it will be important for government to focus on being worthy of our on-going trust. To do this, they need to learn some key lessons of the past and reflect on the reasons for the positive support they are getting today.
Four actions are particularly important. The first is to minimise avoidable failures of delivery, including by reducing gaps between public expectations and governments ability to deliver. Second is to adhere to high standards of governance and to explain clear why individual actions are in the nation’s interests rather than self-interest. Third is to engage the community open, honest and meaningful dialogue about the nation’s future. And fourth is to ensure that government builds the deep-thinking capacity and operational flexibility to needed to adapt to what is clearly a changing world.
A final word
The experience of the pandemic reminds us that we have a capable and potentially effective system of government in Australia. Until the pandemic though, that capability was well hidden. Rather than being a source of confidence for the nation, the behaviour and performance of government was one of serious concern.
An opportunity lies before us to use what we are learning in response to the pandemic to restart our democracy and build a better approach to government for the future.
The contest of ideas and accountability good democratic government brings should not be allowed to descend again into selfish short-termism and political opportunism. A different path is potentially in front of us. Let’s not squander it.