There is a place for a contingent, limited workforce and, when we use it well, it’s excellent and efficient. When it’s used to replace base capability, it’s a problem.
Results from Australia’s civil servants, while positive overall, were relatively downbeat in comparison to the other countries.
Their leaders gave the lowest weighted rating of all nine nations in response to the overarching statement my organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen needs, with 57% in agreement. And views from the wider group tended to hover around the middle to lower end of scoring compared with other Five Eyes countries.
Peter Alexander, acting chief executive of the country’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), attributes at least some of the Australians’ apparent pessimism to their inherent cultural habit of underpromoting themselves, lest they be accused of getting too big for their boots.
The civil service usually performs pretty well in international comparisons of its activities. “But our self-reflection is always a bit more negative,” he says. “At the DTA, we’ve actually just been talking to some agencies and collecting data and, of the 20 agencies we collected data from, this sort of view was absolutely replicated in 18 of them – the vast majority underplayed their achievements.”
Australian civil servants at all grades were certainly more negative than their peers in other countries on many questions relating to autonomy and risk appetite. They had less confidence than any of their peers in the Five Eyes countries that individuals and teams have autonomy to design and deliver solutions and failure is tolerated as long as lessons are learned. And, in response to the invitation in the survey to state one action that the centre of government should take to improve their organisation, several Australians made suggestions around trusting staff to conceive new ideas and take risks.
Alexander believes that managers’ willingness to grant autonomy to staff has diminished in line with a reduction in risk tolerance caused by media and political reactions to failure.
“Say a website goes down for half a day or there’s a problem with the delivery of a project that costs a bit of money, the vitriolic response from the media is completely disproportionate to the actual effects,” he says, adding that officials may also face Senate committees who “will ask questions about a project with the intent of embarrassing the incumbent government”.
“That is problematic too because we can’t just be open and talk about lessons learned and failing fast through agile delivery approaches and all those things we should be doing,” he says. “It’s all become wrapped up in risk because no one wants to be on the front page of the newspaper with a project overrun or website down and service unavailable.”
The open-form responses also included several appeals to remove the staffing cap that limits average staffing levels across the government to the numbers employed in 2006-07. This limit was intended to ensure the public service did not grow bloated and inefficient. However, because it has operated in parallel with continued efficiency demands that dictate agencies must cut their budgets by between 0.5% and 2% each year, it has created an explosion in the use of casual labour and consultants to deliver increased service delivery and digital transformation requirements.
In 2018, it was reported that, since the change of government in 2013, spending on contract labour hire and consultants doubled to $730 million. Some suggested that this increase, along with the staffing cap, could potentially diminish the expertise of public sector agencies.
This issue was also reflected in Australians’ responses to the statements around bringing in diverse skills at short notice versus hiring new talent to support change. More than seven in 10 leaders – and 58% of the wider cohort – agreed people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice to help problem solve. But just 52% of leaders and 46% of the wider cohort agreed their department is capable of hiring the new talent needed to support change as and when it is required (Fig 21).
“There is a place for a contingent, limited workforce and, when we use it well, it’s excellent and efficient,” Alexander says. “But when it’s used to replace base capability, it’s a problem.”
Barriers to agile policy design and delivery
Only one in three Australian leaders in our survey agreed to any extent that digital technologies are fully embedded in policy making and service design.
Peter Alexander, acting CEO of Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency, contends that the framing of this statement conflates two distinct activities within the Australian Public Service.
He explains that agile and digital approaches are well embedded in service delivery, but “the problem we have is that policy design and development is still often done quite traditionally”.
“We still have agencies who’ll say they’re the policy agencies so they’ll come up with the policies, and then throw them over the fence for a delivery agency to deliver. The digital or IT guys don’t get involved until the end of the line,” he says.
“Whereas, of course, the best kind of digital delivery model is to get a team of delivery experts and policy experts and users of systems and customers all together and workshop and do an agile delivery method approach to the implementation of a policy in design and delivery. But that complete lifecycle, that engagement, is still rare.”
This was also reflected in responses to the statement we develop new policy and delivery solutions in parallel to increase the pace of development; just 57% of Australian leaders agreed to any extent – the lowest score of all nine nations (Fig 22).
Alexander says efforts are under way to address this and agile approaches are beginning to take root, but large, complex organisation like the civil service cannot behave like a startup.
“We’ve still got people who think that we can take a major legacy system that has an important role in government – like welfare payments or revenue or security in defence of the nation – and replace it with an app that some kids knocked out through an agile delivery process. But that’s just not the reality.”
Alexander adds that while a significant minority of senior executives have been involved in digital programmes, most have not, which stymies efforts to promote a more agile culture.
He says: “Most secretaries and CEOs are on board now but there’s still this layer of senior managers at deputy secretary or deputy CEO level who are doing things the way they’ve always done them and are the problem.”