Lifting its game to get ahead: The Canberra bureaucracy’s reform by stealth

Paul ’t Hart, The Australian National University


The winds of change are once again blowing through Canberra. Every two decades or so, the federal bureaucracy is encouraged to take a good hard look at itself with a view to reforming how it is organised and operates. In March 2010, a group of senior civil servants and eminent persons headed by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, presented the results of a six-month review process which involved all the usual paraphernalia: a task force of heavyweights and high potentials, an internal reference group, discussion papers, submissions, nation wide internal and external consultation, an international benchmarking exercise, and inputs from private consultancy firms (Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration 2010). This would be enough to send the average Australian punter to sleep, but in the community of public sector stakeholders such big-ticket reform exercises are the stuff of excitement, even legend. The shadows such reform exercises cast can be quite long indeed. Even today, the insiders interpret and evaluate the efforts of Moran and his colleagues through the lens of previous, epoch-making administrative reform exercises, such as the 1976 Coombs commission and the micro-economic reform drives of the 1980s.

So far, the main product has been a fairly compact document entitled Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration. Its thrust: the Australian Public Service (APS) needs to become ‘high performing’, in other words ‘a strategic, forward looking organisation, with an intrinsic culture of evaluation and innovation’ (p. 74). The ultimate goal is no less than becoming ‘the best public service in the world’. The four main planks of the Blueprint to get to this lofty state are creating a public service which meets the needs of citizens (both in designing policy and delivering services); being strongly led, with strategic direction given internally; containing a highly capable, empowered workforce; and operating efficiently and at a consistently high standard. The bulk of the Blueprint sketches a large number of initiatives to be undertaken in each of these areas. Tight timelines and muscular prose suggest a sense of ambition. The largely internal focus of most of the reforms is not the stuff that captivates the media commentariat for more than a day or so, but as scholars of public administration have been pointing out for decades, this is precisely the stuff that can make the difference between governments that work and those that don’t.

The Moran reform agenda is a child of its time.

As with any major policy initiative, the Moran reform agenda is a child of its time. Its tone and thrust are very much the product of early 21st century challenges to the public sector, not just in Australia but world-wide. Governments everywhere are, first of all, trying to come to terms with the true implications of the information age. Signalled and analysed in the abstract by big picture thinkers such as sociologist Manuel Castells (1996–98) and Dutch political philosopher Paul Frissen (1999), the street-level consequences of life in the information society are challenging the system-level architecture of governance. Technologically driven possibilities and culturally embedded expectations now demand that governments follow corporations and engage in mass customisation: responsive, real-time and holistic service delivery. In parallel to the Moran exercise, another ‘task force’ (‘Government 2.0’) focused specifically on the implication of the digital revolution for government. Its clarion call closely mirrors Moran’s exhortations:

Leadership and policy and governance changes are needed to: shift public sector culture and practice to make government information more accessible and usable; make government more consultative, participatory and transparent; build a culture of online innovation within Government; and promote collaboration across agencies (Government 2.0 Taskforce 2009, p. x).

Rightly so. Corporations and citizens expect government not so much to be ‘ahead of the game’ (whatever that means) but first and foremost to lift its own game. They expect the public sector to ready itself to engage far more cleverly, constructively and interactively with a society that is bigger, more differentiated, more fast-moving, better educated, and more demanding than ever before. The drivers of this development are not going to go away, and governments that lag behind in adapting to them effectively diminish their country or region’s international competitiveness and quality of life.

In addition, governments are called on to adapt to an age in which their public authority has become more dependent than ever upon their capacity to ‘deliver’. As predicted a century ago by German sociologist Max Weber, contemporary society is one in which tradition, mysticism and even charisma simply don’t hack it as foundational principles for state power and legitimacy. Even democratic mandates don’t really last all that long, as the Rudd government now knows. We live in the age of value for money. In this value for money environment, citizens take the rule of law and democratic authenticity of the state largely for granted (ignoring their fundamental value and precariousness). Instead they judge their rulers on the contribution they perceive the rulers make to citizens’ own prosperity and well-being. Public leadership in such a world becomes entirely transactional. Citizens pay taxes, vote in legislatures, and, mostly, obey the law. They are perfectly willing to do all that, as long as they feel their efforts are met by governments keeping their part of the bargain: providing safety, prosperity, care, sustainability and all the many other things they say they will. In a value for money society, we judge government first and foremost by its results. Weber captured it nicely in the phrase Legitimitaet durch Verfahren (legitimacy through performance), which he saw as crowding out every other authority claim in a fully developed capitalist society.

We now judge government first and foremost by its results.

What Weber did not fully foresee is the effects of the so-called time-space compression (Harvey 1990) that current governments labour under, with its globalised outlook and real-time processes. In rich societies such as Australia, citizens want it all now. The speed of technological and cultural diffusion has increased while tolerance for error and delay has decreased. Likewise, knowledge about the state of play in other parts of the world has increased, and thus the ability to continuously track if our own government’s performance is indeed ‘world class’. In the value for money world, time horizons have contracted rather than expanded. For contemporary public servants this means dealing with more impatient, more exposed politicians edging them on to ‘deliver’. It is therefore no surprise that a good portion of the Blueprint is devoted to reforms that focus on the interface between public agencies and the public as well as between the public service, not-for-profits and other key deliverers of public services upon which governments have come to rely. It is in these interfaces that much of the success or failure of government policies and projects are determined. Improve them, and you will improve both your effectiveness and your efficiency—manna from heaven in the value for money world.

A final major context factor shaping the Blueprint process is the inexorable rise of resilience considerations in public policy/administration. The end of the Cold War has not heralded the kind of benign, Western-led, democratic New World Order that US George H.W. Bush foresaw. Instead the world is rife with small wars, shifting alignments, and mass casualty terrorism. This new reality has combined with growing awareness of climate change and natural and man-made (what’s really left of that distinction in the eyes of the public anyway?) disasters to teach Western governments that the ever-growing complexity and transnational interconnectedness of the economic and infrastructural systems that sustain our way of life are a two-edged sword. They make us richer but not necessarily safer. If risk is the product of the impact and the probability of harmful events, then the news is not great on either front. Relatively small mishaps in vital systems can cascade quickly and widely throughout and across societies; at the same time, a changing climate and a more conflict-ridden world are more likely to throw up significant disruptions. The changing risk matrix they face requires contemporary governments to be agile and resilient in the face of rude surprises. Emergency response and crisis management once were low-level concerns safely left to a largely invisible cadre of technical, operational specialists. Now they have become ‘core business’ at the highest levels of government—witness the frantic and wide-ranging government engagement with the GFC, the strategic nature of the Australian government’s response to the tsunami in 2004 (grasping the opportunity it presented for lifting the vital relationship with Indonesia), and the picture of blameworthy leadership malaise in key government agencies aggravating the deadly impact of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria painted by the Royal Commission that investigated the tragedy. Building a public sector that is resilient is one of the key drivers of the Blueprint process. It is also a tough challenge, because taking resilience seriously means acknowledging the vital benefits of redundancy and overlap, and resisting the lure of the always popular simplicity of efficiency-driven ‘more for less’ reforms.


On the continuum of incremental versus radical, the Moran agenda is definitely closer to the former end. It takes a scatter gun approach: the Blueprint reads like a shopping list of notable, but mostly small-beer items. Most are squarely in the realm of what Argyris and Schon (1978) called single-loop learning: technical, managerial solutions to soft spots in the machinery of government. What the review does not do much is to lay down truly ‘double-loop’ learning ambitions; that is, fundamentally re-examining and redesigning some of the key underlying assumptions, values and design principles that underpin the current Australian public service system.

Australia has no burning platform for public service reforms.

This may be appearances deceiving. It may even be a clever ploy. UK-style grand designs are always high on lofty but abstract promises yet low on specifics and therefore prone to petering out in implementation. Those grand reforms that are more concrete—like Jeff Kennett’s privatisation agenda in Victoria in the early 1990s, or the Al Gore-led ‘reinventing government’ operations in the US federal bureaucracy under Clinton—also invite big opposition. Kennett fought his way through, but more often than not, political sponsors don’t like wasting political capital on machinery of government reforms. They need it more badly on the big-ticket substantive policy struggles of the day. As a result, they back off from public service reforms that run into headwinds, whether unions-inspired or otherwise. Or they simply lose interest: there are no votes in public service reforms (except perhaps in Canberra).

With political backing sporadic and inconsistent, public services are largely left to reform themselves. Given that reality, a piecemeal, seemingly technical approach is not such a bad choice. It allows for proceeding much more unobtrusively and therefore less controversially. This enables reform architects to ‘smuggle in’ more far- reaching change through seemingly unspectacular ‘back-office’ initiatives.

There is an interesting international precedent for this strategy. The outgoing Dutch public service reform czar and doyen of the college of Dutch departmental secretaries, Roel Bekker, has been leading the latest attempt to reform the Dutch central government’s public service conspicuously unobtrusively. He has done so quite deliberately, drawing smart conclusions from the long history of ‘grand design’ style attempts at Dutch administrative reform, which have produced semantic innovations but many fewer material impacts on how public agencies and services were designed and operated. The jury is still out on the current reforms, which centre on such ‘boring’ things as integration of corporate services, co-locating departments, one logo for ‘Brand Government’, strengthening program management capacity, and so on. However, some commentators suggest that this approach of deliberately understating the scope of the ambition is clever: when people are bored and uninterested, they don’t go into resistance mode. It is a strategy of ‘reform by yawning’ (Van der Steen & Van Twist 2010). Its momentum is also helped by the fact that the money is running out in the Dutch public sector, as indeed almost everywhere else in Europe. The financial bottom line is hard to argue with. Given this ‘burning platform’ and grim determination from the political masters to cut government spending, finding the money by increasing back office efficiencies may well seem a fairly palatable option to bureaucrats whose biggest fear must surely be the mutilation or termination of key programs they administer.

Australia has no such burning platform for public service reforms. Though it won’t last, at the time the Moran team set to work, the money was flowing like never before. In fact, spending all that money effectively and efficiently has proven a bigger challenge for Canberra than finding spending cuts. Ironically, the only things burning that may have helped prompt the current reform zeal were some suburban roofs—the tragic byproduct of flaws in administering one chunk of the Rudd government’s stimulus package, the now-notorious roof insulation scheme. It was a big story while it lasted, but hardly a sufficient reason to cast the die of wholesale public service reform. That said, running parallel to the insulation fiasco were significant shortcomings and outright failures in administering the stimulus. Think of not-yet-delivered ‘computers for every schoolchild’. Think of the stories, doggedly pursued and sometimes disproportionately amplified by The Australian, about pathetically expensive school canteens and unwanted library buildings bestowed upon bewildered school principals and P&C’s under the Building the Education Revolution scheme. Think of the painfully slow progress made in the last decade—if any at all—in ‘practical reconciliation’ (Howard lingo) and ‘bridging the gap’ (Rudd lingo) between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In combination, these as always tardy, sticky and disappointment-prone realities of public service delivery highlight the relevance of some of the Blueprint’s diagnosis: there are significant limitations to the federal bureaucracy’s current capacity for tackling society’s ‘wicked problems’ by designing and delivering complex yet effective and timely public programs and projects.

The Moran review carefully eschews some of the common ‘governance stories’.

In the absence of a stand-out, urgent, politically ‘hot’ reform trigger, the Moran group clearly found it difficult to weave a coherent narrative that holds the disparate activity clusters together. If this is part of a calculated ‘small target’ strategy, good luck to them. But if one takes the accepted view in much of the change management literature that ‘clarity of vision inspires sense of mission’ and that ‘structure follows strategy’, the Blueprint may come across as lacking a core organising idea (above and beyond the ambitious but somewhat trite aspiration of wanting to become ‘best in the world’—at what? assessed how? by whom?—and the fairly mysterious notion of being ‘ahead’ of ‘the’ game). For admirers of more coherent and more conventionally ‘heroic’ reform narratives, it may come across as playing things too safe, notwithstanding the broad front of engagement it entails and the hyperbolic rhetoric that seemingly inevitably accompanies such initiatives in the Anglo-Saxon world (lots of by now thoroughly clichéd power verbs pervade the text, no doubt put there to convey a picture of a public service that is ‘rolling up its sleeves’, ‘getting on with it’, and—most of all—‘delivering the goods’).

There is something to be said for this critique. It generally helps in ‘selling’ the reform to the mainstream of uncommitted‘ wait-and-see’ public servants and stakeholders out there to have a guiding narrative to help them literally ‘make sense’ of what is going on. However, despite, or paradoxically perhaps precisely because, the large number of lines of diagnosis and improvement, the Moran review carefully eschews some of the common ‘governance stories’ (Bevir & Rhodes 2006) that can deliver semantic elegance and psychological momentum to the enterprise. There is no ‘the money is running out’ story of retrenchment (which has been and will be the key driver of administrative reform in Europe), though there is some obligatory talk about desired ‘efficiency gains’. There is no ‘the service has become too autonomous’ story of responsiveness, which was a key theme of the Coombs report. If anything, some of the key commentators were fond of arguing the reverse, at least in the late-Howard era: the service had become politicised and dangerously hyper-responsive (Mulgan 1998, 2007; Weller 2002; Podger 2007; MacDermott 2008). Neither of these diagnoses is even hinted at in the Moran blueprint, though some provisions are made to strengthen the role of the Australian Public Service Commissioner in top-level appointment processes, an important if largely symbolic gesture to reduce the appearance of politicisation and make the service ‘frank and fearless’ again.

Nor is there a ‘we messed up big time when it mattered most’ story of reorganisation of the kind that inspired the cultural transformation of the Immigration Department in the wake of the damning Palmer (2005) and Comrie (Commonwealth Ombudsman 2005) reports into departmental mistakes. The Blueprint is clearly not presented as a crisis-driven reform. The GFC has largely passed Australia by (in part due to excellent APS quick response capacity, nagging implementation problems in stimulus delivery aside). The floods, bushfires and other recent emergencies brought out, as before (see Shergold 2005), the best in the APS. (Perhaps the biggest crisis the Australian public service has had to face in recent times has been the recently ousted prime minister’s ultra-Calvinistic work ethic, his penchant for ruling by inner-circle clique rather than through cabinet government, and his challenging interpersonal style.) In the background, we have several creeping crises looming—water, climate and energy among them—but these are not explicitly on the Blueprint radar.

In so far as the report approximates a classic reform rationale it is that of ‘the times they are changing story of modernisation: citizens want better services and more engagement; technology enables more tailor-made and faster services; and times of rapid change require more agility on the part of public organisations. Bits of that story are in there, but they don’t add up to become the narrative of this reform blueprint. As far as big ideas go, the Moran reform process initially embarked on a credo of aiming for the APS to become ‘best public service in the world’. This narrative lost much of its credibility when a very poor and widely scolded benchmarking study (KPMG 2009) undertaken to legitimise it was published along with the review’s initial discussion paper.

Several creeping crises loom, but these are not explicitly on the Blueprint radar.

Perhaps looking for a ‘big idea’ to reform the public sector in contemporary Australia is asking for the impossible: the country is too well off to make any of those narratives really stick. Moreover, the real driver of the current reform may be much more simple and straightforward than all of the above: change at the top. The 2007 election brought in a new prime minister and a new Head of the APS. As contemporary leaders these days seem condemned to do, they announce a reform. Research on the succession of CEOs of major US corporations suggests that new bosses, particularly those coming from outside the systems they take charge of, tend to want revamped tools. More importantly, they want to be seen by the shareholders and markets to be able to get their way in revamping them—whether necessary or not (see Khurana, 2003). That, too, is a reality of reform that cannot be ignored.

Reform urgencies and ambitions are bigger elsewhere, and reform narratives more compelling. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains entirely to be seen. Partly it is a matter of perspective. Big and fast changes of a truly systemic kind might appeal to the romantic ideal of ‘leadership’ but the opposition against it can be fierce (Hirschman 1991) and its results can be scary (Scott 1998).

That said, for an inspiring, if as yet unproven ‘big-idea’ and, it must be said, politically driven approach to administrative reform, have a look at Scotland, which has abolished classic departments altogether. Scottish Government directorates are responsible for progressing the five core strategic objectives; Wealthier and Fairer Scotland, Healthier Scotland, Safer and Stronger Scotland, Smarter Scotland and Greener Scotland. Supporting these directorates is a range of corporate service teams and professional groups. It has also built its entire public service and governance systems around whole-of-government outcomes, with a National Performance Framework as its centrepiece and a well-developed machinery for tracking progress.

Senior public servants in the Scottish system have strong incentives to become truly strategic operatives and maintain a holistic perspective rather than getting sucked into the exigencies of day-to-day running of large organisations and navigating the bureau-political tensions between them. Top public servants are responsible for thematically related ‘families’ of directorates/agencies, but are first and foremost ‘members of the board,’ routinely tasked with whole of government programs and targets that require ‘cross-family’ collaboration. If the Scottish approach succeeds (and even if it doesn’t), it will become perhaps a contemporary version of the much vaunted ‘New Zealand model’ of the 1980s: a small state achieving fame/notoriety for its reform radicalism. At the very least, it is an approach worth careful study, even by a much larger and more complex federal system such as Australia.


Will these reforms fly, and how will we be able to tell if they have? At the end of the day, a scattergun approach to reform is likely to produce a scattergun sort of report card as it moves from design into implementation. Whereas the Scottish approach will succeed or fail in a big way, the Moran approach will, by its very nature, do so in small (but not necessarily unimportant) ways.

Will these reforms fly, and how will we be able to tell if they have?

Certainly the time frames set are ambitious, and there is the usual array of indicators. I have little doubt that single-loop reforms will result in helpful new practices, such as the institutionalisation of public service capability reviews, rearticulating public service values, and so on, within the machinery of government itself. APS corporate governance will almost certainly improve somewhat as a result of this reform process. But what about APS production of public value?

It must be said that, on the face of it, the prospects for success in terms of public value production in the world outside Canberra are not all that great. Firstly, in the absence of a compelling narrative, the Blueprint misses the chance of making a significant discursive impact: it will not change the language in which we think and talk about central government administration. That is a missed opportunity, as discursive interventions cost little yet can have great effects, as Foucault and others have demonstrated very convincingly. For one, it can give people reasons to believe in the process and the changes they are expected to make in their structures and practices, rather than just comply with instructions to do so.

Secondly, there is at present no widespread felt urgency about these reforms, certainly not in the minds of the vital cadres of middle managers upon whose shoulders the real implementation of the Blueprint will come to rest. It is not clear how the Blueprint architects expect to bring these people—tens of thousands of them—along. This is particularly pressing since the demands of business as usual under the Rudd government have in many places been so relentless as to completely overwhelm the top cadres in many departments. Even if those pressures ease after Rudd’s removal, it will continue to be difficult to find and mobilise slack resources and free up the best public service leaders to push the agenda forward.

Perhaps most importantly, some of the key ambitions, particularly in the area of ‘citizen involvement’ are premised on ‘buy in’ from groups way outside the public service, and presupposes an intensity and quality of conversation between the ‘system world’ of federal mandarins and the ‘life world’ of ordinary citizens and community groups that the APS is not ideally situated to make happen. The irony of the Moran Blueprint is that some of its key ambitions stand a much better chance of success at the state level, which, however, is conspicuously absent in its story.


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Paul ’t Hart is professor of political science at the Australian National University and professor of public administration at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is currently seconded to the Australian New Zealand School of Government. His recent books are Dispersed Democratic Leadership: Origins, Dynamics, and Implications (2010, Oxford University Press, with John Kane and Haig Patapan), Accountable European Governance (2010, Oxford University Press) and How Power Changes Hands (Palgrave, forthcoming).