Are we really putting Australians at the Centre of federal government?

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The Prime Minister has announced changes to the federal MOG (machinery of government) claiming a reform agenda. We call it window-dressing.

Well, what to make of the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of changes to the structure of the Australian Public Service? Apparently, these changes are part of the federal government’s “reform agenda to put Australians at the centre of government”. Really?

federal MOG

First, to the numbers. The PM has announced that effective Feb 1 2020 the number of federal government departments will reduce from 18 to 14. Ostensibly to “ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”. (I wonder if you could efficiently and effectively use the words “Robodebt” in the one sentence when discussing putting Australians at the centre of government?)

Within the public sector, the simple act of moving functions between departments/agencies has long been known as “Machinery of Government” changes – a phrase I note the PM has steered clear of when announcing these changes. To describe these MOGs as a “reform” is laughable.

Yes, they are a change, but unless they are accompanied by more strategic initiatives to streamline processes of policy development and implementation, breakdown silos of information and responsibility (whether within or across portfolios), upskill capability and make better use of technology, it is simply window-dressing. Something that governments, state and federal of all persuasions, have all been guilty of.

For the record, the changes announced by the PM are:

  • The creation of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, which will consolidate:
    • the current Department of Education, and
    • the current Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.
  • The creation of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which will consolidate:
    • the current Department of Agriculture, and
    • environment functions from the current Department of the Environment and Energy.
  • The creation of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, which will consolidate:
    • the current Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
    • energy functions from the current Department of the Environment and Energy, and
    • small business functions from the current Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.
  • The creation of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, which will consolidate:
    • the current Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, and
    • the current Department of Communications and the Arts.
  • The Department known as Services Australia (formerly known as the Department of Human Services) will be established as a new Executive Agency, within the Social Services Department.

Ten departments remain unchanged.

Why not try for real reform?

This is a lot of change to come into effect on 1 February and one can only guess at the level of chaos and uncertainty that this disruption will cause within these organisations and to the Australians that rely on them. Five Department heads have been sacked, so it’s hard not to think that these changes have a cost-cutting focus, as surely there will be roles lower down that will be duplicated in the newly merged Departments.

If the federal government is as serious as it claims in wanting to improve government and put Australians at its centre, then it should be putting a real priority on the findings of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (the Thodey Review). This comprehensive review process has been completed and the report submitted to the government back in September.

This review was tasked to look at the real issues that are holding back the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal public service, and to put some proper analysis behind their work to recommend the sort of reforms that should serve Australians well.

This body of work is relevant, not just at a federal level, but also at the state government level, where there are similar issues faced. Most of these states, however, are not waiting for the outcome of the Review and are already putting in place strategic initiatives to develop a more modern and flexible public service that is more responsive to the needs of the citizens it services.

In Victoria, I am familiar with the One VPS and Jobs and Skills Exchange programs that aim to retain and enhance skills in the Victorian public sector, as well as make it easier for people to work, collaborate and move across organisational boundaries. And, while it’s early days, if successful, will drive real reform.

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