Australian PM promises public service shakeup

By on 20/08/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Morrison aims to cut red tape in the civil service to enable Australians to more easily access public services. (Image courtesy: Kirsty Robinson / Commonwealth of Australia).

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has set out his vision for the Australian Public Service (APS), in his first major speech to civil servants since he was elected for a second term in May.  

In an address at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday, Morrison said he respects the “experience, professionalism and capability” of public servants, but that the APS needs to evolve and adapt and that “old ways of doing things need to be challenged and, if necessary, disrupted”.

He said citizens’ interactions with government should be “simpler and less bureaucratic”, and warned ministers to be assertive in setting policy agendas and avoid becoming “captive[s] of their departments”.

The prime minister said in his speech that good government depends on receiving excellent policy advice from civil servants, but that this should not be “an exercise in [public servants] providing a detached and dispassionate summary of risks that are logged in the ‘told you so’ file for reference in future memoirs”.  

“It’s about telling governments how things can be done, not just the risks of doing them, or saying why they shouldn’t. The public service is meant to be an enabler of government policy not an obstacle,” he said.

‘Quiet Australians’

Morrison urged public servants to have a “laser-like focus” on serving the hard-working “quiet Australians” who are not represented in Canberra.

“There is strong evidence that the ‘trust deficit’ that has afflicted many western democracies over recent years stems in part from a perception that politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle,” he said. “This will not be the case under my government. Middle Australia needs to know that the government is on their side.”

Remedying this would come, in part, from empowering public servants to make change and improve service delivery. Not enough officials feel they can improve public services, he said, citing the results of a survey which found more than a quarter of the APS did not feel they could make a difference. And he argued that this represents a failure of public service management.

On his desire to get input from junior civil servants and boost engagement, Morrison said: “I want the gatekeepers who control access to ministers to ease up a bit and let you in, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself in my or one of my minister’s office. And if you get a call and someone says it’s the PM, it may not be a prank call.”

Delivering outcomes

He called for a strong emphasis on delivering outcomes and on the setting of priorities, targets and metrics across government to measure those outcomes, and said he wanted members of the APS to ask themselves three questions every day: What are you trying to do? How do you know you’re on track to get there? And what does it look like when you’ve achieved your goal?

Those who played a part in implementing successful public policy would be rewarded, he said. “I want you to feel good about what you do, the contribution you make and the positive difference you can make to the country and its future. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

“If your success is measured solely in career advancement through the seemingly infinite grades of the public service, I don’t think that’s enough. It’s not what I want my public service to be about as a citizen, let alone the prime minister. And I think the overwhelming majority of public servants feel the same.”

Thodey review

Morrison’s speech comes shortly before the release of David Thodey’s review of the APS, commissioned by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, which Morrison said was in its final stages.

Morrison said he expects the report to pick up on how the APS needs to change so it can respond to economic, social, technological and geopolitical challenges. “We need the APS to be an exemplar of innovation and adaptability. More agile and more responsive to the public where they live,” he said.

To achieve that, Morrison said the government will “need to find new ways for smart, dedicated Australians [who don’t necessarily want a career in federal bureaucracy] to make a contribution to public service” and to encourage public servants to see time in the private sector as “an important part of their career journey”.

He added that the APS needs to be “world class” at collaborating with external partners on the challenges facing Australia, including grasping the productivity opportunity of the digital economy, ending the export of waste, and using ‘big data’ to “dramatically improve” service delivery.

On the potential of digital technology, Morrison said it was “not an option for the Australian government, but the future of it”. But he acknowledged the challenges in harnessing that potential.

“Government needs to connect instantaneously and seamlessly with Australians to answer questions, provide services, make payments and solve problems,” he said. “Just as technology opens up new opportunities, it also creates new vulnerabilities. Whether it be working through the ethical and privacy dimensions of the digital revolution or protecting our systems from malicious cyber activity, the Australian government cannot be anywhere but the frontier.”

Civil service chief’s take

The outgoing head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson – who will be replaced by Treasury secretary Phil Gaetjens at the end of the month – has backed Morrison’s push for public service reform, telling leading officials on the day of Morrison’s speech that “the Australian public expect more of us – more delivery, more momentum, more focus and getting on with the job of serving Australians and making their lives easier”.

He added that Morrison’s push for reform should give public servants “clarity about where we are going and how fast we intend to get there”.

Speaking to Global Government Forum about the Thodey review last month, Parkinson said he expected it to “call out a number of areas” that public sector leaders will need to focus on to meet the expectations of the government and the public, including how they engage with those outside the service.  

“As the public’s expectations change with respect to delivery of services – for example, through the provision of digitised services you can access quickly on your phone – we need to make sure we are doing all we can to foster a strong and effective public service that is, as the prime minister says, public-facing in all respects.”

“The question,” he added, “is the extent to which we are willing to dig in and make real progress in these areas”.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Ted Dantoncal says:

    This could work but only if done well. Clear performance metrics for departments, branches and individuals is key. And in a way that is efficient and meaningful so that it doesn’t become another bean-counting exercise. There was an excellent article some months (?) back about innovation in the public service with great examples from Estonia, etc. Looking at success and failure stories that have already been implemented may help the Aus. civil service efficiently embrace this “evolution”.

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