Its 2017 and nothing much has changed in the way government and bureaucracies operate. The difference is that the system flaws that can no longer be hidden. Stuff-ups are found out almost instantaneously and people power propels their exposure. Leaders must face an increasingly hostile and vocal public who will no longer accept the status quo. The public service is in trouble.
“We know, but we keep making the same sorts of mistakes and we have to keep asking ourselves why. What is it that about the way we think about doing things that’s leading us to repeat these issues?” – Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).
Let’s talk frankly about some spectacular failures in the public sector in recent years starting with the most recent debacles including Centrelink, ATO, Census and VET-FEE HELP, preceded by the home insulation program and e-Health, oh and we can’t possibly leave out the ongoing failure of the NBN. Note these have been under Labor and Coalition governments so the only constants are the bureaucracy and the short sightedness of politicians in chasing the holy grail of announce-able’s.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”
Let’s take the most recent Centrelink example, you can follow the saga on twitter #notmydebt, the system failed 20% of Centrelink’s “customers”. Despite a fifth of those 169000 letter recipients being affected, politicians and bureaucrats continue to defend a flawed process.
The issue is simple, the design was defective, bringing together two data sets that did not correlate. The ATO data is based on annual income and the Centrelink data on fortnightly income. That’s a rookie mistake. Going into the process knowing there was a 20% failure rate is astounding. Putting in place insufficient support for those impacted is rank incompetence.
Nicole Rogerson, head of Autism Awareness Australia and mother of a young man with an intellectual disability expressed her outrage on the ABC. She observed that the methodology used by Centrelink could have compromised her autistic son who was willing to pay a $3000 debt until his parents intervened. He wasn’t liable for the debt and didn’t need to make the payment. How many of the 80% who didn’t complain and paid their debts are like Rogerson’s son? Rogerson said many people with disabilities and families who rely on the payments are in a flux at the moment.
Christian Porter (Minister for Social Services) and Alan Tudge (Minister for Human Services) probably thought they were doing the right thing – reclaiming overpayments to balance the budget.
What I don’t understand is why two such capable Ministers – one a former management consultant from BCG no less – didn’t test and check the approach before going live to satisfy themselves and their peers that the process was going to work?
And why didn’t they tap into the experience of the former McKinsey partner who now runs the DTA? the ‘very talented’ Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation and Rhodes Scholar from Goulburn, Angus Taylor?
Who would know? Tudge and Taylor remain on holidays and have yet to surface. Instead, Porter’s fronted the media until he decided it was time for Hank Jongen to take over.
Seeds of discontent
A recent Mandarin article on Peter Shergold’s principles to transform cross sector work by David Donaldson outlined four principles: Public servants must:
- look outwards
- embrace partnership
- empower citizens
- continue to extol public purpose.
Is that the best we’ve got to ignite the public sector to dramatically shift how they solve problems? Advising them to look outward, to collaborate and to be customer facing?
When people say these things, I wonder what were they doing before hand. Facing inward, dis-empowering the public and avoiding partnership? Honestly this is just ridiculous: yet another speech, report or announcement appearing to do or say something isn’t going to change anything. The strategy must be delivery.
It is encouraging that current Secretary of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Martin Parkinson is frank about not repeating the same mistakes, its also timely that former head of PM&C – Dr Peter Shergold – talks about the need for reform and for public servants to be more collaborative.
But I think it’s time to stop the niceties and the diplomacy and tell it like it is – the Australian Public Service is fu*#^d.
Centrelink, Census, NBN, ATO fails – how many more failures do we need?.
These stuff ups are only the tip of the iceberg – this is what the public finds out about, just imagine what is not reported.
Despite the crises we are facing, there remains no sense of urgency among Parkinson and his mandarins.
Instead, bureaucrats in Canberra continue to write the papers, attend the meetings, agree to produce plans about plans, deliver reports, make announcements while sitting tight, waiting for the change of government or minister so that they don’t have to change anything. Feels very much like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic.
Given these repeated failures I’m stunned at the continuing lame excuses for poor performance. It’s happening everywhere where there is bureaucracy and that includes the bloated corporations, but my pet peeve is government.
Why? Because they are doing it with public money, with taxpayer dollars. The waste is spectacular. What astounds me, is that the SES are paid, at the more senior levels, salaries that are as attractive as the private sector, but they remain unaccountable. Therein lies the fundamental problem – a lack of transparency and accountability.
In short, taxpayers fund failure and are expected to be grateful and be quiet. What rubbish.
What hope is there when people like Dr Peter Shergold or Dr Martin Parkinson, cannot change attitudes in their workforce?
We are beyond a polite nudge or a slap on the wrist, what is required now is full Monty – consequences. Not just a bureaucrat accepting the blame on the television and keeping their job.
Parkinson they tell me is a talented man who wants to make a difference. What I don’t understand is why he can’t get his own leadership team to change.
I suspect like those before him, he lacks incentive and the political will to get it right. He and his Secretaries Board, his deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries are stuck within an echo chamber – “yes, of course, we have a plan for a plan, the strategy has been developed, we’re engaging with everyone (because of course it’s whole of government, so we need to talk to everyone inside and outside government so that we can then ignore them and do what we were always going to do), we’re reporting on our progress, we’re procuring the expertise from consultants, we’re having the training designed and delivered so that our workforce is ready…and of course, it’s not so bad – our people are doing a great job.”
The APS leadership lives in a bubble and is rightly under attack from all quarters. They’re de-skilled and are challenged by twenty first century work practices and have to deal with inexperienced advisers in Ministerial offices.
Martin Parkinson has been a bit more frank with the public sector. Parkinson said recently in his speech to the IPAA ACT in Canberra as reported by The Mandarin that disruption is inevitable and will impact on the public sector; he says that the public sector is viewing innovation as a buzzword; and he warns:
“I want to be clear, that’s a false reality, and a dangerous one. It feeds into a concern I’ve expressed previously that we in the APS are at risk of a fatal combination of ignorance and arrogance.”
Parkinson is of course right, But the public service is still failing to deliver.
On what planet is it actually acceptable that:
22 million out of 45 million calls go unanswered (Centrelink) ?
Or that a rape crisis line that doesn’t answer 20% of calls (1800RESPECT)?
Or that 169,000 letters can be sent out with a 20% failure rate (Centrelink – robo-debt) ?
I’m tired of excuses and I’m sick of the promises of change that never materialise. People’s lives are stake here and what we get is Centrelink referring customers to Lifeline.
The former head of the DTO said it with a lot more clarity a month after arriving in Australia in 2015:
Our job is to serve the public and we are failing…It’s not good enough in the age of Uber and Airbnb…If Amazon did that they’d go out of business. – Paul Shetler
Shetler continues to be frank and fearless in defining the problem, in his first blog after leaving the Australian government he said:
“For services to be truly transformed, we need to go beyond the front end, and transform the back office IT too. If we don’t rethink the underlying IT systems and business processes, we’re constrained to do little more than make cosmetic changes. After all the service doesn’t stop at the user interface, it includes an ensemble of people, systems and processes that support it.”
Shetler goes on to say,
“When it comes to service delivery, the transaction volumes of government services are small compared to the wider world…And still, government spends more than $16bn a year on IT. Our procurement and funding processes encourage big IT programmes, with bigger contracts. They drive a culture of blame aversion which creates the perverse outcomes and actually increases risk.”
The current system is broken, sadly the people running it are pretending it’s not. They must be living in La La Land too…
The NDIS is next and that will be an even bigger problem because people with disabilities cannot live without the system working, we have already heard that payments are behind and progress is slow despite the billions of dollars invested, and all the hype. We are starting to hear about the problems now, tonight the 7.30 Report reveals troubles brewing with the scheme.
So what is the solution?
We can no longer accept the incompetence and hide behind flimsy excuses. The APS must re-skill from the top down. They must find their voice and deliver frank and fearless advice once more. Ministerial Advisers must know their place and Ministers must be held more accountable.
In the Mandarin article, Donaldson quotes Peter Shergold on the need for sensitive and subtle leadership
“It will require the leadership of facilitation. Success will be judged by the extent to which cross-sector working can be fully exploited for public benefit. The old-style modes of behaviour were based on controlling, contracting, consulting and communicating. In the new world, the dominant form of authority will be collaborating, co-designing, co-producing … and communicating.”
Shergold is right co-design, co-production and collaboration is the future, but that requires a commitment to doing so, the skill and capacity.
Take for example, TechFugees Australia, a tech community response to refugee resettlement. We held our first hackathon for refugees in November 2015 and at the time I reached out to the NSW Premier’s office, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Shergold himself, not to ask for anything but to offer engagement with a cross sector collaboration that utilised co-design with refugees to solve settlement problems. While it ticked all the buzz words, the bureaucrats did not budge one millimetre, I invited Shergold to the event but understandably he was busy, so it seems were the other people I invited from the department. In 2016 I didn’t bother and our events go ahead and around now in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and SA without government.
A huge missed opportunity to collaborate, face outward and co-create solutions with refugees and people from across sectors, right there in their lap and they didn’t get it. And that’s the endemic problem – the lethargy with which the public service acts towards new ideas and innovation – even when they don’t have to do anything but show up.
This experience did nothing more than strengthen my resolve that it really is up to us, not the Shergolds, nor the Parkinsons, not even a Turnbull.
It’s up to you and me to shake things up and drive solutions. Its up to us to empower citizens and NGOs to get on with it and solve our own problems.
To the intrapreneurs and change makers across government, you need to stand up and expose the unacceptable – you know the truth that your agency is concealing – it’s time to call it out. Doing nothing is no longer an option. Government is being disrupted by its own incompetence.
Don’t know how? Just ask me, I’ll connect you to some of the best people in transformation.
First published on LInkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/chiefdisrupter/
Anne-Marie Elias is a former senior ministerial adviser and public servant, she left in frustration to advise corporations, government and NGOs on positive disruption and change.. Anne-Marie is a speaker on innovation, collaboration and disruption. She is an honorary Associate of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS.
Anne-Marie is on the Board of VibeWire; Western Sydney Women; the Australian Open Knowledge Foundation; Autism Advisory Board, and the Settlement Services International Foundation.
Follow Anne-Marie’s journey of disruption and innovation on Twitter @ChiefDisrupter or visit www.chiefdisrupter.com and anne-marieelis.com