Reform of Australian Government Administration

The public to be asked for a verdict on the public service – ABC Radio PM

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Mark Colvin: The most senior public servant in the land wants to know what Australians think of the bureaucracy.

The head of the Prime Minister's Department Terry Moran released a blueprint for reform today and one of its recommendations is a regular survey of attitudes to the public service.

The report also suggests that the mandarins be more accountable and says the public service needs to be more serious about developing the skills of its workforce.

But Terry Moran told Lyndal Curtis that the bureaucracy was still a place where governments could expect frank and fearless advice.

Terry Moran: In my job I see from day to day evidence of senior public servants in particular calling it as they see it and giving advice to ministers or into the Cabinet process generally.

But at the same time our report says that ministers differ as to their needs and public servants have to be able to adapt to the needs of individual ministers; but not to the point where they lose courage in giving frank advice.

Lyndal Curtis: Does the public service also have to adapt to changes in the community or community views about what the public service should be doing and should be doing well?

Terry Moran: There's a very big change in community attitudes. The community now is after more and more services and so forth from government that meet their very precise needs rather than general stuff that may or may not fit the needs of an individual or a business or a community group.

And so at the local level public servants have to be better equipped and be given more authority to adapt to the needs of the communities they serve rather than just giving them a standardised product from Canberra.

Lyndal Curtis: Do you know enough or do you need to know more about what the public thinks of you and also how your internal processes are operating?

Terry Moran: We don't know enough about what the public thinks. And one of the proposals is that we do probably every three years a major national survey on citizens' experience with government.

The advisory group is saying that this should apply not only to the national government but also to states and territories and even conceivably with local government although that hasn't yet been worked through with state and territory governments and local government.

Lyndal Curtis: Why the need to include them?

Terry Moran: Because so many of the services that the Commonwealth gives sit, or provides, sit side by side with what states and territories and sometimes local government do.

So for instance take health. You can't get an accurate reading from people in the community about how governments are going on health unless you embrace what the Commonwealth Government is responsible for as well as what state and territory governments are responsible for.

Lyndal Curtis: There's been a move in national politics to taking over some of the functions that had been the primary responsibility of the states.

You suggest better integration with the states and territories, having staff being able to move across jurisdictions, co-locating offices.

Would that help the federal public service do better on things like service deliveries? Because the most recent example, the insulation program, there was a major problem with service delivery there.

Can you learn more from the states?

Terry Moran: Well I think we can always learn more from the states, from the private sector, from the not-for-profit sector. But the point about co-locating different offices at the one location is really an issue of convenience for citizens.

It's crazy that in many parts of Australia the one person might have to go to one location to deal with Centrelink and to another location to deal with Medicare and to another location to deal with a child support agency.

We're now moving to put all of those together in one spot so that it's more convenient for the individual citizen.

But at the same time in doing that it makes it also easier for public servants to move from one area of work to another as their career progresses.

Lyndal Curtis: Much has been made of the Prime Minister's 24/7 approach to work and there have been stories about public servants working all hours to provide advice that appears to go nowhere. Is that the best recruitment ad for the public service?

Terry Moran: It's not and I don't think it's an accurate representation of what happens.

I see most of the work going from the public service into government. And I see at some times individual groups working very hard just as they would in the private sector and delivering results.

At the end of the day this all feeds into a decision-making process at the Cabinet level and it can be a little bit difficult for people who are remote from what's happening at that level to fully appreciate how things are weighed up before good decisions are taken.

Lyndal Curtis: The report also suggests that departmental secretaries be more accountable. How would that work and should they be more publicly accountable?

Terry Moran: Well ideally the annual reports from departments would show some of that and perhaps they could be improved. But we're also keen to see capability reviews of their departments to see where the weaknesses are. That could conceivably lead to the information going public.

We're going to see a new tough performance management system established for secretaries so it's clear over a year what it is we're going to deliver and their efforts can be assessed reliably and objectively at the end.

Lyndal Curtis: What do you want the public service to look like?

Terry Moran: I want it to be as professional as any public service could be.

I want it to be quite creative and innovative in the policy advice it gives, on the ball with the latest ways of delivering services, dealing effectively with ministers and the government in delivering whatever the policies might be that they have from time to time and all in all a place that offers a really rewarding career for young people and even as I said before people in the middle of their careers.

Lyndal Curtis: And how long will it take?

Terry Moran: Well I think there's a lot of agreement amongst the secretaries of the need to drive forward on reform. I think that a lot can be achieved in two or three years.

Mark Colvin: Head of the Prime Minister's Department Terry Moran speaking to our chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis.



Last Updated: 21 May 2010