Renewal
May 7, 2012

Public service reform Down Under

As most readers will know, public services around the world are facing particularly challenging times due to demographics, increased policy complexity, the public’s higher expectations for government services, the increasing cost of government, and the additional administrative attention being given to oversight and transparency. As a consequence, most countries have been experimenting with discrete initiatives to address specific issues in order to smooth over this difficult transition period.

For example, in Canada, the federal government has been looking at ways to make the federal government the employer of choice among young professionals as a way of countering the waves of recent retirements. As a result, it has created the Recruitment of Policy Leaders program, established the Policy Research Initiative, passed the Public Service Modernization Act, and became a more aggressive employer on Canadian campuses.

While the Canadian approach has been piecemeal and incremental, some countries have initiated government-wide reform efforts that are designed to rethink the role of government and the way it relates to citizens.

For example, last month, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia announced a most ambitious examination of the whole Australian government administration by announcing a national dialogue about the future of the Australian public service. To accomplish this goal, he has created a ten person advisory group, led by the Secretary to the Cabinet, to deliver a blueprint for reforming the administration of the Australian government by early 2010. In particular, he has asked the advisory group to outline the steps needed “to rejuvenate the Australian public service and enable it to serve the government of the day in addressing the challenges facing Australia in the 21st century.”

The Prime Minister has asked the advisory group to develop reforms that improve the performance of the public service in delivering: “a values driven culture that retains public trust, high quality forward looking and creative policy advice, high quality, effective programs and services focused on the needs of citizens, flexibility and agility, and efficiency in all aspects of government operations.”

As a starting point, the Prime Minister released a wide-ranging discussion paper entitled, “Reform of Australian Government Administration: Building the world’s best public service.” Each chapter analyses the current state of the Australian Public Service (APS), describes the concerns of Australians and concludes with a series of questions. These questions form the core of four online forums with the public that were held during October and will serve as important input into the advisory group’s deliberations (see www.dpmc.gov.au/ReformGovernment).

There is good reason for Canadians to monitor the progress of this exercise. First, Australia operates in a Westminster system like our own and it too has invested heavily in recent years in greater oversight capacity and enhanced service to the public. Moreover, during the past decade, it has also experienced some public concern about the state of the political-administrative interface and has experienced large-scale retirements followed by a surge in recruiting at the entry level, which mirrors the Canadian situation.

Sitting in Ottawa, it is interesting to look for elements in the Australian model that might inform or improve on the federal government’s pragmatic approach to renewal.

For example, the Prime Minister is relying on a diverse advisory group, half of which is not part of the APS. Second, despite the breadth of the mandate he has imposed a very short timeframe on the advisory group to produce its recommendations. Third, the public is clearly part of the consultative process but it remains to be seen if their input will be valuable in the advisory panel’s deliberations. Finally, the Prime Minister has invested considerable political capital in this exercise.

As a result, the advisory group must find a way to meet the lofty expectations of the government at the same time as it produces recommendations that will challenge and excite the APS, which will be responsible for its implementation.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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