The power of technology: Global Government Finance Summit, part 4

By on 11/10/2018
Rosemary Huxtable, secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance says citizens want government to operate much like the banking sector or Uber; they expect us to be agile.

Today’s citizens demand convenient, user-focused public services, Australia’s finance department chief told delegates at the 2018 Global Government Finance Summit. And digital technologies give governments the power to provide them

Citizens of developed countries around the world have similar demands of the services they receive from government. “They want high-quality services, available when they want them and delivered in ways they can access,” said Rosemary Huxtable, the Secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance. “They want government to operate much like the banking sector or Uber; they expect us to be agile.”

Yet every civil service must develop and deliver services in a unique political, constitutional, organisational, geographical and cultural environment – presenting officials with very different challenges and opportunities. And at the 2018 Global Government Finance Summit, an audience of senior civil service finance professionals heard from Huxtable and Paul Loke, Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer at Singapore’s Accountant General Department, how these two very different countries have used technology to meet their populations’ fast-rising expectations.

Intra-departmental coordination

Speaking to delegates from 11 countries gathered at the Summit – hosted this year in Berlin by the German government, and supported by EY and Microsoft – Huxtable explained that Australian government is a “complex federation. We have federal, state and territory governments as well as local government, and each level has different roles and responsibilities.” Officials must also grapple with the country’s geography; for whilst 95% of the population live in urban centres, the remainder are scattered thinly across the sixth biggest country in the world.

In a bid to get the federal government’s departments working more closely together, civil service leaders have established a Public Sector Reform Committee – chaired by Huxtable – within which officials try to adopt what she called “a different mindset, where we seek to support each other. Historically, secretaries have tended to be very responsible for their organisation; now, we’re agreeing amongst ourselves to take collective responsibility for the signature initiatives that will have most impact on citizens, families and businesses.”

Paul Loke, director of technology and chief information officer at Singapore’s Accountant General Department

As an example, Huxtable cited reforms to the social and health-related payments disbursed by the Department of Human Services, where until recently “we’ve had long wait times, and complex processes that can be hard for citizens to engage with.” A new system for student payments, she said, has cut processing times from nine weeks to as little as five days.

The government is also making rapid progress on shared services – often a fraught field for civil servants, as Huxtable acknowledged. “Our approach is heavily informed by what we’ve learned from other jurisdictions, where shared services hasn’t always gone well,” she said. “And I think one of the reasons we’re having some success is that we in the Department of Finance have both the policy responsibility, but also responsibility for one of the shared service delivery hubs. So we’ve been able to inform our policy thinking with what we’re learning on the ground through practical experience.”

Delivering with data

Greater strategic coordination amongst civil service leaders has also eased the sharing of data between departments, enabling the centre to work with line departments on ways to use the data they hold to improve decision-making. “We now have a protected data-sharing environment in which we can access the data and do collaborative work on it,” said Huxtable. “And we use data visualisation and data storytelling to make a difference in how ministers engage with this information. Rather than analysing policies based on data samples and average impacts, we can use whole population datasets.”

Bill Matthews, Canada’s senior associate deputy minister for defence

To illustrate the power of this approach, she showed delegates a hypothetical example built using the data on two million Australian households in receipt of family payments. Officials can use this data to model the effect of reforms to payment policies, she explained, revealing the impact of various options on the whole of the service user group. “Previously we’d have used samples and averages, and missed a lot of the detail,” she pointed out.

And are these visualisations influencing ministers, asked Mark McDonald, EY Global’s Public Finance Management Leader: “Are better decisions being taken, better policy?” Huxtable was cautious: these new capabilities are feeding into a “traditional Cabinet process, which tends to be a very verbal engagement in a closed environment where people tend to talk about their personal experience,” she replied; it’s “early days”. So the greatest influence so far has been on improving delivery departments’ policy development, feeding into the decision-making process: “We have been able to help departments better identify where there are gaps in their policies.” 

Funding transformation

To build and launch new systems, civil servants need funds – and in these straitened times, investment cash is hard to come by. Even when reform projects are expected to produce big efficiency savings down the line, officials may struggle to find the capital to get them off the ground; and finance departments can play a key role here through ‘save to spend’ initiatives.

Under this approach, some of the efficiency savings made in departments are returned to them for investment in further money-saving reforms. In Australia, explained Huxtable, a Public Sector Modernisation Fund has been created: “Government agreed in the ‘16-17 Budget to invest A$500m [US$380m] of the A$1.9bn [US$1.4bn] savings in new transformation initiatives. Then we went through a competitive process, asking government entities to come forward with ideas”.

Andrew Lai, deputy secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury in Hong Kong

It’s this fund that has helped support Australia’s data analytics work, via a “data integration partnership which brings together high-value data assets from across the public sector. Four analytical units have been created to support analysis of a range of policy problems,” she said. The fund’s other priority has been shared services, helping to explain the country’s rapid progress on this agenda.

This model is quite new for government, said Huxtable – but the private sector CEOs who sit on her reform committee consider it business as usual: “They know that to achieve efficiency, we have to invest; every private body does it,” she commented. “But that model doesn’t always exist in government.”

It is becoming more common, though – and Andrew Lai, Deputy Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury in Hong Kong, explained that his administration allows departments to keep half of the savings when they come up with innovative ways to save money. This, he said, incentivises departments to work intelligently and uphold financial discipline. 

Rewarding achievement

To help drive efficiency programmes, Australia’s Department of Finance is developing ways to use data to measure civil service productivity. Some 70% of officials are engaged in “regulatory and programme work that has a transactional element, so we should be able to measure productivity there,” she commented. “The challenge is how you measure the productivity of policy work; we’re doing some trials around that.”

Is this focus on data, service delivery and business transformation feeding through into civil service career development, asked Bill Matthews, Canada’s Senior Associate Deputy Minister for Defence. To get to the top “in most countries, your best path is to be a policy pusher,” he pointed out. “We undervalue the skillset of getting things done. I’ve yet to see a career model that properly rewards fantastic project managers and people like that.”

“I’ve yet to see an algorithm about how you get promoted, but usually the way you get here isn’t the way you survive here,” replied Huxtable. “As a secretary, the key thing you have to do is manage the organisation. You can have good policy people around you, but actually your role is to be a leader and work on the culture of the organisation.”

“My mantra is that as a central agency, we’re as effective as our relationships,” she concluded. “You’ve got to get out there and work with the line agencies, understand the environment they’re in, and help them to solve their problems.”

This is part four of our report on the 2018 Global Government Finance Summit. Part one examined the Compact for Africa; part two explored the use of blockchain in public finance management; part three covered Finland’s reforms of health and social care delivery; and part five detailed Singapore’s innovation in digital public services and efficiency.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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