The release earlier this week of the draft report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce has the potential to be a watershed moment in the management and delivery of government and its services to the people of Australia.
I find it more than a little interesting that after not much more than passing interest in the Taskforce’s work from anything except the Australian technology media, the mainstream media has now picked up the story and seems fascinated. It’s also more than a touch humorous that the report from Australia’s leading financial newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, had to be copy-pasted into a post at the Taskforce blog because of the AFR’s ridiculous and reader-unfriendly paywall.
Others, both in the public sector and external to it have voiced the view that the report is well written, addresses all the right issues and suggests a number of well-considered approaches to the problems of reforming government and the work it does. I couldn’t agree more. While there are the odd overly bureaucratic turn of phrase or suggestion in the report, they are forgiveable. This is after all, a report for government about government business — it must speak to its target in language it understands and is comfortable with. How else can encouragement of needed change occur if not in the language of those you seek to change?
I’ve engaged several times with members of the Taskforce and at event they’ve run as a part of their work. I’ve been more than impressed overall with the way the majority of the members have gone about their business and particularly in the way they have sought to walk the talk on the types of practices, behaviors and business they are working on.
But as of December 31, everything changes. The Taskforce disappears and in some way, shape or form, the work of the Taskforce becomes business as usual in some part of the byzantine machine that is the federal government. All that enthusiasm, interest, and modeling of the way things could and should be potentially goes dead in the water on 1 January.
I think this is an incredible risk. If the momentum that has been created becomes a part of some busy (albeit probably enthusiastic) bureaucrat’s work, handed to them to manage in addition to the mountain of work they already have, what happens? Does the work continue? Who remains to prod and poke, generating action, when people like Nicholas Gruen, who has been an outspoken agitator throughout the lifetime of the Taskforce, are no longer there?
Without a determined agitator and without rapid and decisive action on the part of the government, any outcomes from the Taskforce’s report risk being implemented by committee in some yet to be determined time frame. We risk ending up with a camel rather than the sleek, agile quarterhorse we have should the report be actioned in the way it recommends.
Should that happen, the greatest risk becomes inaction and apathy. If that occurs it will be a terrible waste and a great shame. I hope it is very much not the case.
What remains to be seen, and will undoubtedly be the most complex hurdle for all of this will be the hobby horse I’ve been riding throughout this journey — cultural change. Without a willingness to and action on cultural change in the public sector and at the legislative level, many of the recommendations will come to naught. Without explicit and powerful support from above (all the way to the Prime Minister) and all through APS management from Secretaries and agency heads down to EL1s (and equivalent), and the necessary support and education throughout the ranks, change will be terribly hard.
Even with the changes to the APSC guidance on public servant involvement online, FOI reform, and the dropping of control and filtering I am beginning to hear about, all of these things and the recommendations of the Taskforce will be incredibly hard to make happen without the cultural change, support and education that will lead to good execution of the recommendations and the attendant policy and practice reform.
I believe the willingness and capacity to make this all happen in the best possible way is there, I just hope that it all doesn’t get swallowed up by bureaucracy and people so busy they can’t make things happen. Making sure this is the case will be the hardest thing the government and public sector has to do on 1 January.