Canberra introduces Public Service reform agenda following independent review

Of the 40 recommendations that were put forward, the government said it agrees with 'a majority'.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that the federal government agrees with "a majority" of the 40 recommendations made by the independent panel responsible for reviewing the Australian Public Service (APS).

"I have asked the heads of the public service to take these forward," he said on Friday.

"The Secretaries Board, led by the Secretary of my Department and supported by the Australian Public Service Commissioner, will lead the reform effort beginning with a rapid planning phase over the next few months."

The review, chaired by CSIRO chairman David Thodey and launched by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, was to mainly understand whether those staffing Australia's government departments were capable of ushering in the "next wave" of digital.

Specifically, the review examined the capability, culture, and operating model of the APS.

Some of the recommendations put forward in the panel's final report of the review [PDF], which was submitted to the federal government in September, included the need to implement APS transformation through clear targets; strong leadership; the appointment of a secretary-level transformation leader; the undertaking of regular capability reviews to build organisational capability; and the promotion of continuous improvement through the PM&C Citizen Experience Survey, APS census, external advice, and better performance reporting.

There was also a particular focus around the need for APS to embrace data and digital, with the federal government acknowledging that there is currently in excess of 200 bespoke business processes across government agencies with little coordination and over 170 bespoke IT systems that are separately managed and maintained across the APS.

The final report recommended for APS to strengthen digital governance; build data and digital skills; make better use of data to improve policy and decision making; improve funding, structure, and management of digital functions across the APS; conduct ICT audit and development whole-of-government IT blueprint; adopt common tools and services; make data open by default; and deliver simple and seamless government services, integrated with states, territories, and other providers. Of the panel's recommendations, 15 were fully supported by the government.

As part of the government's response [PDF], which has been labelled as the "APS reform agenda", Morrison said an additional AU$15 million would be invested to support the Secretaries Board and the APS Commission to commence these reforms. 

Within this, the government said the Secretaries Board would undertake a series of targeted reviews from mid-2020, which include a cross-portfolio review of the delivery of functions; driving APS-wide culture change; and working with parliamentary departments and others to progressively update induction and training materials.

The Secretaries Board will also conduct a three-month sprint in early 2020 to plan implementation, including resourcing needs, the government said in its response.

Morrison also highlighted how the government has already enforced other changes that are aligned with its reform agenda, pointing to the recently announced department reshuffle as an example. This will see the number of APS departments be reduced from 18 to 14 from February 2020.

In the changes, the former Department of Communications will be moved under the banner of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications. Arts will remain along with the Communications portfolio.

Fresh from its May renaming from the Department of Human Services to Services Australia, Services Australia will be an executive agency sitting within the Department of Social Services.

The Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science will take on the energy portion from the former Department of the Environment and Energy to become the Department of Industry, Science, Energy, and Resources, while the environment portion is now part of the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment.

The Department of Education, meanwhile, will take on the Department of Employment, Skill, Small and Family Business to become the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment, while the small business functions will end up in the new Industry department.  

Morrison also noted in his response that the establishment of Services Australia was another "building block of its substantial reform program".

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said at the end of last month that the Department of Government Services was in the process of undertaking seven streams of work to stand up Services Australia.

These included retrofitting shopfronts, so they are "friendly" and "welcoming"; alleviating the demand on call centres for simple requests, such as, checking on the status of applications; designing a customer-centred suite of digital services, such as reminders, notifications, claim tracking, and digital identity; removing red tape around back-end processes; and working with the ACT, NSW, and QLD governments to integrate services around the birth of a baby.

The government also agreed to undertaking an "urgent audit of government ICT capability, risks, and needs". It said this is already underway, with the Digital Transformation Agency working with the Departments of Defence and Home Affairs, Services Australia, and the Australian Taxation Office to examine a single whole-of-government technology architecture, as part of the government's digital transformation strategy to make all its services digital by 2025.

The recommendations that government disagreed with however, were amendments to the Public Service Act 1999 and the need to clarify APS leadership roles and responsibilities.

"The government considers that current roles and responsibilities of the Secretary of PM&C, the APS Commissioner and portfolio Secretaries work effectively in practice and there is no need to alter these or further clarify them in legislation," it stated in its response. 

"The APS Commissioner will establish an Advisory Board to help ensure the APSC best discharges its responsibilities."

The Australian Labor Party slammed the government's response as being "totally inadequate", claiming it was "weak and non-committal".

"There is no doubt that there are challenges ahead for the APS but the Government's response today indicates that it will do very little to prepare for those challenges," Shadow Minister for Finance and the Public Service Katy Gallagher said.
"Scott Morrison doesn't get the APS, he doesn't respect the APS or its workforce and he clearly doesn't understand its important role in delivering services to Australians. 

"Today marks a major missed opportunity to modernise the APS and ensure it is properly equipped to deliver for Australians into the future."

When the findings of the review were released in March, it underscored that moving the APS to a more common way of operating -- a "stable spine of common digital platforms" -- would facilitate the change needed where collaboration and digital capability within the APS, along with the introduction of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) for service delivery are concerned.

Thodey had previously said for the APS to be capable of delivering on the expectations of the future, public-private partnerships -- as well as inter-government collaboration -- would be key.

At the time, he noted technology could be the enabler and driver of the future of the public service.

"Digital comes with risks and I have always argued we need to look closely at them, talk about them openly and see what we can do to manage them better," he said. 

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