There are two basic truths about the public service. First, the demand for government services is ever growing and insatiable. Second, the willingness and ability of governments to finance the public service is finite. In the end, we have the public service we can afford. The service lives in the tension between these two things. How then to get best value for money?
First, what can the public service do well?
If enough intelligent people are given enough job security to feel comfortable speaking truth to power, then the public service is capable of long term strategic thinking. The same is true of Universities, and of think tanks that are actually about thinking rather than pushing an ideological agenda. That is why job security matters.
The service is capable of objectivity in a way that politicians are not and consequently is better equipped to moderate competing demands and deliver good policy on a range of issues.
If the right people are in the right positions, the service is also capable of understanding science. This is hugely important because politicians generally don’t understand science, particularly in this country. They tend to be lawyers, business people, ex unionists, or persons with a background in community service. There is almost no one in the Federal Parliament with a background in engineering, medicine or environmental science. It’s one of the reasons why our government is just plain dumb when it comes to things like coal seam fracking, climate change, and defence procurement.
Finally, the service has a long history of delivering defined services to defined groups of people in specific ways. It’s like a big train that, once on track, just keeps going. The introduction of the GST, the change from Imperial to metric measurement, and the change from the sterling to the dollar were singular triumphs.
What does the public service struggle with?
Anything technical. Once upon a time I worked for the Commonwealth Environment Department writing management plans for marine reserves. Essentially that meant making rules to restrict certain fishing methods and gear types in various bits of ocean. Of the 20 or so people on the team one was a recreational fisherman. None had ever worked on a commercial fishing boat and most had never been on one. There was no relevant induction or training – like spending a couple of weeks working with the guys in industry. I was one of only four people with a background in compliance. After a 10 year process (I was there for six months) one of the bosses suddenly realized that compliance was going to be an issue – like for example in the entire Coral Sea. Hmmm, maybe Queensland could look after that… State governments are better on the whole because of Australia’s odd constitutional arrangements, they do a lot of the actual service delivery.
So what works?
Small focused expert teams
It is a common story that a large well funded government organisation failed to deliver powered flight but a couple of bicycle mechanics working at the same time did. There is an energy that happens in small teams that can’t be replicated any other way. Plus they are more efficient. While the Wright brother’s story is often cited as an example of why business does it better, the fact is that any organisation that grows beyond a certain size will require more bureaucracy and operate less efficiently. For that reason large organisations work best as collectives of smaller groups.
Clear lines of accountability
The message coming out of the inquiry into the national home insulation scheme (which led to several home fires and deaths) is that everyone is sort of responsible but no one is really. That lack of accountability is common in large Departments and is something that bedevils Defence. It is the reason why Australia was unable to maintain its submarine fleet in state of operational readiness. Accountability has to stop with an individual who is resourced intellectually and materially to understand what is going on and to ask the hard questions. That person will never be a government minister. Ministers are too busy and have too many competing demands. They rely on those under them to manage risk. That means that if there is a stuff-up, the person accountable needs to be sacked because they had it in writing at the start that it was their responsibility.
The person responsible must be qualified or have relevant other expertise. I wager there were very few electricians managing the home insulation scheme. At both State and Federal level the service needs far fewer BAs and LLBs and lots more engineers, scientists and people from industry. In the home insulation example there were obvious rorts but nice middle class university graduates just don’t think like that. A lot could be gained from a program that gave bureaucrats first hand industry experience.
In the Second World War no one came even close to the tactical brilliance achieved by the Germans and Japanese. On the eastern front the kill ratio was seven Russians to every German. There are many reasons for this but one seldom discussed is that forward commanders were allowed to take their own initiative and respond to the battle without getting permission from the higher ranks. The British only really every achieved the same level of initiative with commando units.
In the public service initiative is frowned upon. It is seen as insubordinate and risky. Those on a fixed salary have no incentive to take risks because they will likely not be rewarded for success. However they may be penalized for failure, so it is safest to stick with whatever makes the hierarchy happy and keep plodding. In the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in India it became a talking point that those at the bottom were working hard, those at the top were brilliant, but there was complete paralysis in the middle. People need to be given explicit permission to fail, and assurance that they won’t be penalized for trying.
Empowering managers to sack underperforming staff
Machiavelli observed that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Having worked with underperforming staff I know the frustration of dealing with inept people who know they won’t be sacked. There is no reason why, if the job description is clear, that work goals cannot be set and long term underperformers cannot be got rid of. The sad fact is that while many worked hard, even heroically, too many people did too little for too long and now the entire service is being hammered. Output managers who sack staff should be thought well of, not looked at askance. Would that result in unfair dismissals? Yes in some cases, because incompetent managers feel threatened or because they are on a power trip. On the other hand capable people will pick up work elsewhere. Overall it is better to shed the dead wood.
Providing incentives for initiative and productivity
Which brings me to the other side of the same coin – good workers are not rewarded, they just tend to get asked to do more. Productivity can be a hard thing to measure. How to you measure policy advice, research or financial analysis, or staff management? However a lot of front line service can be measured. There is no reason why incentive bonuses shouldn’t be paid were practical in the public service.
Outsourcing is often held up by the pro-business crowd as a panacea of many of the ills I have mentioned. Sometimes it is cheaper to hire outside expertise but there are also risks. First is that if key services become dependent on contractors those contractors gain a lot of leverage in price negotiations. Second, relationships can become too cosy by far. Third, you risk losing important in-house expertise. Fourth, public servants have to do pretty much whatever they are told. Contractors don’t have to step an inch outside their contract terms which means everything has to be negotiated.
Consulting internally first
Governments often get criticised for spending too much money on consultants. However there is often a wealth of freely available knowledge within the ranks of the organisation that doesn’t filter up, and a wealth of open source knowledge that just needs time to access. University graduate staff are very good at this and they don’t charge $100 per hour. I have yet to work in a place that had a knowledge/skills register but I have been reprimanded for approaching a subject matter expert in my (then) own Department and talking to people outside.
For more on open source see here: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article38903.htm
Expert boards are value for money
Highly qualified specialists seldom work for government. They can make more money, have more fun, and achieve greater career satisfaction elsewhere. However one thing they like to do, particularly in semi-retirement, is sit on boards and committees that look into interesting things. Expert boards thus provide a cost effective way for government to purchase independent expertise across any issue. Further, if they report publicly or to the Minister, they can break the deadlock created by self-seeking agency heads advising unqualified ministers on the basis of advice from uniformed underlings. This is an obvious way of addressing the lack of internal technical expertise in areas such as health, defence, and natural resource management. Indeed, one of the things the Department of Defence steadfastly resists is independent expert boards reporting to the Minister.
There seems to have been a time, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s when a person on graduating university could get a public service job, underperform for 40 years and look forward to a generous retirement. Those days are over and increaslingly the service will have to justify its existence and do more with less. There needs to be a generational culture shift.
I am sure I am not the only one with good ideas so feel free to make comment.