IPAA Annual Address to the Australian Public Service 2023

Professor Glyn Davis AC, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
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Professor Glyn Davis AC

Please allow me to also acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as traditional custodians of these unceded lands and recognise the many Aboriginal people with connection to the lands of the ACT and region. We are privileged to be on your country, to benefit from the continuing culture and care you bring to this community.

My thanks to Katherine Jones PSM, Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department and IPAA ACT President, Andrew Metcalfe AO in his new role as IPAA National President, Wendy Cohen, acting Chief Executive Officer of IPAA ACT and to the hard working IPAA team for organising today’s event.

And a shout-out to dedicated staff from across the public service. There is so much good work underway. The video from Services Australia playing as you arrived shows the joy they get from helping others, in serving the public with skill and care. 

I had the privilege of meeting some of the Services Australia team earlier this year, starting in a customer service centre at Woden.

The enthusiastic centre manager showed colleagues and I the subtle design features to enhance service delivery – a friendly meeting point on arrival to triage needs, computers for those who might need to access online information, an offer to schedule appointments so people do not need to wait around, and an office expertly designed to protect the privacy of clients, including secluded rooms for anyone in distress. The people who designed these spaces thought of everything to make them as accessible as possible.

Behind the public area, a committed team working long hours to address inquiries.

The only jarring note was the security guard at the door – an unfortunate reminder that Services Australia officers are sometimes abused or threatened.

Later, at the Services Australia Operations Centre I saw how real time data is collected at service centres in every state and territory, on phone lines and through internet inquiries, to construct a vivid national picture of current needs and concerns.

This allows a swift response to fires and floods, early warning of emerging issues, a sense of local queues and delays. The Operations Centre team can direct surge capacity to programs operating under stress, knowing each data point represents a real person, an urgent concern, a case needing attention.

The Services Australia vision is to ‘make government services simple so people can get on with their lives’.

The team members I met were proud of the support they provide every day to fellow citizens. The Services Australia crew itself was an inspiring cross-section of Australia - diverse, experienced, committed, inventive.

Here, I thought as I walked around the centre, is the future of our APS.

A reminder of what is possible even amid a year which included the Robodebt Royal Commission, consultancy scandals, and public sector code issues.

As always, disappointing news must be met by action – as we saw during 2023, a renewed commitment to integrity with the arrival of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, legislation to affirm core public service values, and an excellent APS Integrity Action Plan developed by a talented cross-agency team and distributed widely.

Despite setbacks, a year of quiet, determined progress.

This afternoon is a chance to reflect on where those changes take us. What is the journey for the Australian Public Service from here?

The recent history of the APS can perhaps be captured in the trajectory of a single agency.

Think about the Commonwealth Employment Service – a timely case study given a report of the parliamentary review into Workforce Australia Employment Services released last Thursday, following an extensive inquiry chaired by MP Julian Hill.

The CES began life in 1946. After the devastating experience of high unemployment during the Great Depression, the CES would help employers find workers and direct new migrants and returning defence personnel toward worthwhile jobs.

Over time, the CES became a familiar institution, located in many Australian communities. You may recall those government issue counters, the long lines of plastic chairs for clients, the cork boards with pinned-up job adverts on neat hand-written cards.

The CES became the way many Australians sought work and registered for unemployment benefits.

Public servants would stand behind a glass screen interviewing clients and outlining job opportunities, helping them navigate support services – obvious similarities with Services Australia today.

The CES interviewed immigrants within hours of them arriving in the country, helping match skills with existing vacancies and travel to new workplaces.

There was pride in the service. An ABC feature story last year featured some former CES officers here in Canberra. They recalled rushing down to Vinnies to buy up all the white shirts for clients who needed clothes for interviews.

That’s dedication. That’s caring about people.

But working at the CES – and being a client – was not always the happiest experience.

The lines could be long, the paperwork formidable, and the pickings slim – particularly in poorer communities during times of recession, when the CES had few jobs to offer.

An extended downturn in the early 1980s provoked questions about whether the CES was still fit for purpose. It was clearly underequipped – and certainly underfunded – to deal with the reality of high and sustained unemployment at that moment.

Job seekers required training, relocation, and wage subsidies to help find that elusive role in the economy.

This prompted a re-think in how employment services were offered – and by whom.

Some new ideas took hold, ideas that are now all too familiar: that all government services needed better management, and some government services might be better run by private companies.

Fans of Yes, Minister may recall Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary, expressing his disdain for what he described as ‘the whole squalid world of “professional management”.’

Yet corporate approaches to organisations were on the rise and have shaped our lives since. That was a profound change in the 1980s. It still matters.

Australia soon privatised a long list of public agencies: from airlines, banks and phone services to employment services. The Commonwealth shed nearly a third of its full-time employees.

For those agencies which remained, it was no longer assumed Commonwealth public servants should deliver services. The role of the Commonwealth would shift from service delivery to writing and supervising contracts.  

Much direct service provision ended. Now citizens looking for employment would see not the CES but a service provided by the successful bidder.

For those services now operating in a market, over time two models of contracting emerged: fully outsourced and a mixed model, with partial outsourcing.

Disability care and child care, for instance, remained outsourced fully, with funding and subsidies from the Commonwealth provided to a range of community providers.

Aged care, on the other hand, remains mixed. Governments and private providers run residential homes with government subsidies and capital grants, while the Commonwealth funds mostly outsourced home support and home care packages.

Employment services were outsourced, albeit with a digital service for the most job ready. Last year the Commonwealth spent some $1.7 billion to deliver employment programs through third parties. 

The results are not always impressive. To quote the Select Committee report from last week:

It’s harsh but true to say that Australia no longer has an effective coherent national employment services system; we have an inefficient outsourced fragmented social security compliance management system that sometimes gets someone a job against all odds.

The employment services story is a microcosm of public sector trends, a story told brilliantly by Mark Considine in his 2023 study of contracting, The Careless State.

There have been benefits. Outsourcing introduced the APS to some cutting edge technologies and new ways of thinking about service delivery.

Contracting promised an attractive alternative to those CES counters and lines, with more responsive systems and better value for money.

Several decades on the evidence is in about the shift in service delivery, and the consequences.

The costs of contracting have become more apparent over time. Many long term unemployed still struggle to find jobs. The high churn in short term jobs delivers a margin to the private providers but not necessarily fulfilling and reliable employment for Australians.

A new conversation has begun about the future of public administration – how services are understood and delivered.

There are people calling for a return of the Commonwealth Employment Service, notably the CPSU with its ‘Bring Back the CES’ campaign.

This is not just a local debate. Many analysts around the world argue the public choice paradigm for government has run its course, even if the long-term replacement has yet to find a coherent form.

The future of service delivery was one of several pressing topics explored in expert roundtables by APS Secretaries during the year.

These bring together experts from across government, industry and academia, as we ponder the future of the Australian Public Service.

The Government Service Delivery roundtable in August mirrored wider speculation about where public administration is going – the merits of government delivery against private provision, the need for government to be an astute and capable manager of contracts, the risk that a network approach struggles to provide integrated services for clients with multiple and complex needs.

What are the merits? What are the cons? How do you choose?

The roundtable noted some impressive overseas models.

Namyangju City in South Korea is a poster child for hybrid social services.

In 2010, the city created the Hope Care Centre – a one-stop shop for services from health care to legal aid and financial counselling. The Centre is run by local government, staffed by an interesting mix of public and private sector professionals, who enjoy a high degree of autonomy in helping their clients. Namyangju offers a highly successful innovation in social service delivery.

In aged care, Sweden offers important clues.

With a strong focus on wellbeing and living at home, the Swedish model is heavily subsidised and nationalised, with over 80 per cent of care homes run by municipalities. Private providers are part of the system, but there is a high degree of transparency and accountability to taxpayers

Denmark does child care particularly well.

It’s mostly in-sourced and run by the municipalities. Across the care and early childhood education system there are national standards, highly skilled staff, low staff to child ratios, and capped fees.

Because it’s so successful, the Danish child care system enjoys bipartisan political backing and wide popular support.

These are just a handful of examples, each from a very different context. They don’t necessarily translate easily. They remind us there is no one right way to deliver services. We can learn from example, experiment with options.

Knowing what works, not what the model says, is important.

A recent study by the UK Institute of Government concluded that outsourcing does deliver meaningful economies and improvements in standardised services such as waste collection and cleaning.

The same study finds more mixed results for frontline services including prisons, hospitals and employment services. There are measurable gains in cost and service quality, though sometimes these are achieved by pushing the most difficult, and expensive, cases back to government.

Private provision of construction showed poor results, and outsourcing of probation had been a conspicuous failure.

To quote the report:

Some of the people most in need in society – jobseekers, benefits claimants, ex-offenders – [had] been let down … Large contracts [had] gone badly wrong, resulting in significant overspend, while a string of failures [had] damaged public trust and led to calls to bring swathes of services back in-house.

Yet, warns the report, we should be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from the record of the past 40 years.

There is a case for governments to outsource if the economics and the expertise and the technology all line up to deliver better services.

It takes judgement and evidence to know when a service is best provided by government, and when others are better placed to deliver. This is an argument for informed pragmatism over ideology.

So where next for public administration?

Not, let me suggest, any simple return to the past.

The changes of the past 40 years are too profound, too entrenched. The options opened by technology, and public expectations of service delivery, suggest instead that future practice will be a hybrid.

A synthesis looms.

There will be services, as now, for which government relies on competitive markets and external advice.

The use of consultants in government will rebalance in light of public opinion, but we can never retain all necessary expertise within the public sector.

Buying skills for some tasks will continue to be the right choice. We have many IT experts in government, but the reality of complex system design and implementation amid rapid technology change is unlikely to favour in-sourcing.

The key is the decision about when to go to market. Evidence over four decades shows that outsourcing can be a valid choice, but is not intrinsically a better option.

We might anticipate therefore a broader mix of public and private provision funded by government, delivered by networks of government agencies, not-for-profit partners and sometimes private companies. These will form long term alliances around shared program responsibilities. Evaluation will guide further investment choice.

This emerging public administration will also pay close attention to private sector innovation. I saw this at Services Australia, which has learned much about online delivery from industry and states and territories. It adapts lessons to better support the management of claims and benefits.

Better service remains a goal, though not always the reality. Phone queues remain too long. Yet the 2023 review of MyGov, and work underway on digital identity, all point toward more citizen-focused service delivery.

Here the public sector can and does shine. Think of the extraordinary work by the Australian Tax Office to end the ritual of filling in complex taxation returns. Pre-populating returns with indicative guides to deductions makes tax time much less demanding or stressful. It is a really impressive public sector innovation.

This innovation, little remarked but already with us, offers a glimpse of the future.

Improvements on existing services are an important start. But think too of the entirely new world of place-based services, and the very different structures, practices and accountabilities these will require.

In a placed-based approach, local needs and priorities set the agenda. Participation, co-design and shared delivery all become essential.

A placed-based approach asks the community to lead, local needs and priorities set the agenda. Participation, co-design and shared delivery all become essential.

This model has already produced important improvements. Take, for example, the Maranguka Just Reinvest program in Burke, where community, government and philanthropy pool funds to reduce incarceration and crime, notably domestic violence. The Maranguka model works because community sets priorities and directs expenditure.

Government follows, not leads.

The model works because NSW chose to follow, not lead.

A place-based approach requires the public sector to cede control over inputs and outcomes. This does not sit comfortably with electoral cycles, or with ministers keen to make announcements. Instead it makes officials truly servants of the public.

It will not be simple to align a place-based citizen approach with traditional public service auditing, reporting or accounting for results.

Yet empowered communities provide a vital way to address consistent program failure. We will never close the gap if public servants in Canberra think we can solve the housing, health, employment and educational challenges of Papunya.

As I experienced when visiting central Australia earlier this year with colleagues from the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the women and men of Papunya have very clear ideas about what their community needs. They are frustrated by the lack of coordination between levels of government and by poorly directed investment.

They are ready to lead. What they want is a say in local decisions.

A voice even.

A place-based approach calls into question much we take for granted about public administration. It extends an invitation for fresh thinking.

So behind the headlines of 2023 is a conversation about the next phase of the APS. It is a future of multitudes – some return to government-led service delivery alongside working with markets, delegation to communities, and integrating services for citizens through technology.

And all these trends happening at the same time.  

You can glimpse this emerging complexity in the Working Future: the Australian Government’s White Paper on Jobs and Opportunities, published in September, the third such report in the history of the Commonwealth.

Solutions it offers are so different from the previous two reports. You can see how thinking has shifted.

This latest White Paper stresses all the policy variables which influence employment outcomes – economic foundations, industry policy, skills and training, migration reform and reducing barriers to working, particularly for those who have experienced difficulties being heard.

The final chapter turns to employment services, and the role of government helping Australians find work.

The White Paper urges further initiatives to assist those with historic lower participation. It commits to ‘apply place-based policy design best practices to employment services programs’.

Here is the shift underway. A White Paper which sets a goal for employment policy, notes the interacting factors in play, and begins to sketch a different future – one in which government works simultaneously with its own agencies, with community, and with private providers to help Australians achieve meaningful working lives.

This is a vision very different from the Commonwealth Employment Service, the CES, yet with the same goal – service to Australians.

The White Paper does not spell out how this aspiration will translate into programs. In a sense, that is our responsibility.

But it does seek a future in which services are available locally and online.

Services flexible enough to evolve with the needs of an individual.

Services designed to build capability and resilience. Focused on the whole person, grounded in community.

Such an approach does not reject all that has gone before. It looks instead to integrate the experience of the past forty years with opportunities provided by new technology, new ways of working. It builds on the hard work and commitment evident daily across the APS.

Here is our opportunity to support citizens through their life, in a way which resonates with enduring APS values.

Through services we already produce, and those to follow, a commitment to Australians the APS is proud to call our own.

So much to ponder and quite a bit to celebrate as this year concludes – and even more to explore with relish in 2024.

Thank you.