As promised, the advisory group on the future of the Australian Public Service (APS) delivered its report to Prime Minister Rudd on March 2, 2010. Within a very short six-month time frame, the ten-person task force, led by Cabinet Secretary Terry Moran, submitted a frank assessment of the APS with some bold recommendations that aspire to place the APS among the best public services in the world.
It is interesting that one of Rudd’s first actions as the newly elected prime minister was to set about to challenge the effectiveness of the APS. His motives were likely driven by the fact that he was a former Cabinet Secretary in Queensland and had an intimate knowledge of the national government from the perspective of a state administrator. As well, he would have been very aware of the controversies that had preoccupied the APS in the latter years of the Howard government where accusations of increased politicization of the APS precipitated a national debate.
In addition, an ageing work force, changes in technology, higher expectations from citizens regarding the quality of government services, and fiscal pressures were also good reasons for the prime minister to take a bottom up look at the 260,000-person public service.
The 100-page report, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of the Australian Government Administration, is the product of many strands of evidence collected by the task force. More than 200 individuals and organizations submitted briefs, six forums were organized with the public service (including one with newly recruited entrants), four online consultations were conducted with the general public, and a senior public service reference group provided insider knowledge to the task force.
In addition, to set the context of its work, the task force commissioned KPMG to benchmark the APS with comparator nations including Canada. KPMG concluded the APS did a poor job of soliciting citizen input into program delivery, service standards were not as high as those in the private sector, policy making was too reactive without sufficient strategic considerations, professional development was underfunded, and there was a lack of information about the efficiency of departments and agencies.
In general terms, the task force’s recommendations focus on four areas that will be quite familiar to Canadians interested in the public service. First, the government must improve its level of service to citizens and find ways to have the public more involved in developing service standards. Second, there is an urgent need to build the policy capacity of the APS, especially “big picture” policies and those regarding delivery advice.
Third, the task force subtly called for a more sophisticated recruitment strategy to attract high quality individuals to the APS, introducing training programs that encourage leadership, and developing a more consistent approach to employee performance. Finally, it recommended new processes be developed to improve the performance of government departments and agencies by increasing their efficiencies and the quality of their work.
The task force made nine major recommendations but the most interesting and likely controversial recommendation has to do with dramatically remodelling the role of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). During the Howard years, the APSC’s influence as a central agency slowly retreated as the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office grew in importance. While the report is silent on the history of the shifting power base towards the Prime Ministers Office, it does attempt to reposition the neutrality of the public service by centralizing all human resources activities away from the power of the PMO.
Seen through a Canadian lens, in essence the strengthening of the role of the APSC is equivalent to giving more responsibilities to the Treasury Board’s Chief Human Resources Officer. For example, the proposed new APSC would be responsible for workforce planning, learning and development, recruitment and retention, classification and work standards, pay and employment conditions, and presenting “a unified APS” to the Australian public.
Interestingly, the task force was obviously impressed by three elements of current Canadian practices. First, they liked the Citizens First studies that provided feedback on public views of current services provided by our three levels of government. Second, the current cost saving strategic reviews that are designed to eliminate five percent annual spending led them to champion broad based capability reviews. And finally, the management accountability framework (MAF) that many in the federal government perceive as too onerous and unfocused nonetheless attracted favourable attention.
The Australian experience might give our political leadership the motivation to look at conducting a similar exercise in Canada.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).