ANZSOG research helps shape Thodey Review

Image of papers stacked on the table.
  • Published Date: 18 December 2019

The most important Review of the Australian Public Service in a generation has handed down a list of 40 recommendations, many shaped by ANZSOG recommendations on integrity and contracting.

The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, chaired by David Thodey, handed down its final report earlier this month and called for major changes to modernise the APS and make it fit for future challenges. Most recommendations have been accepted by the Commonwealth Government.

The Review painted a largely positive picture of the state of the APS but warned that there has been “long-running under-investment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, while siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules create barriers to effective delivery.”

It said that the APS is not changing fast enough to meet government expectations and deliver for Australians in a changing world.”

It highlighted seven key issues that need to be addressed:

  • The APS lacks a clear unified purpose. Fragmentation and siloed behaviours have negative impacts — including narrow-sighted responses to complex policy issues, poor service and project delivery.
  • The APS is too internally focused. It fails to harness the insights and experiences of the Australian people and communities to address national and local challenges.
  • There has been poor planning and underinvestment in digital services leaving the APS without the tools it needs to support exceptional services or enable data-led policy-making.
  • There has been service-wide failure to manage and invest strategically in the APS’s most valuable asset - its people.
  • Siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies, and traditional ways of working have created barriers to providing joined-up services and integrated policy advice.
  • Strong governance is needed to provide leaders with the confidence to deliver on their accountabilities and to work together to deliver across agency boundaries.
  • The APS is not changing fast enough to deliver for Australians in a changing world. The APS lacks the mechanisms needed to drive service-wide transformation.

ANZSOG research shapes the Review

ANZSOG research played a major role in the Review process, after being commissioned to use its global network of academics to produce six research papers to guide the Review’s deliberations – on subjects ranging from the relationship between the APS and ministers’ offices, commissioning and contracting, integrity, working with other jurisdictions and creating local solutions. ANZSOG also produced a paper on Indigenising public services entitled Indigenous Values for the APS.

The papers have had a significant impact on several sections of the Review, which will flow into government policy in the future.

These include recommendations that the APS: reinforce institutional integrity to sustain the highest standards of ethics, work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and strengthen APS partnerships with ministers by improving support and ensuring clear understanding of roles, needs and responsibilities.

ANZSOG’s submission on Indigenising the APS proposed changes to the Public Service Act to reinforce cultural changes and actions aimed at recruiting and retaining Indigenous employees and incorporating First Peoples knowledge, values and culture into public sector practice.

The Review cites the submission as describing the relationship between the APS and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as “fraught and lacking in trust”.

It says this is: “a damning assessment of years of focus on gaps and problems, not on strengths and assets. Too often, this approach has seen the APS do things to, not with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and substantially fail to improve social and economic outcomes. The orientation of the APS’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is shifting slowly, but has much further to go.”

Boosting integrity to fight loss of trust in government

The report acknowledges that all public servants are operating in an atmosphere of reduced trust, saying that trust has declined in all institutions in western democracies. In Australia, the number of people who say they trust the Government has fallen from 48 per cent in 1996 to 26 per cent in 2016. Trust in the APS rates lower than the defence force, police and universities.

It quoted ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith as saying: “A clear focus on integrity and the public interest will help to gradually improve public trust. Everyone in the public sector has a vital role to play in restoring these basic principles.”

The Review takes up many of the suggestions made in the ANZSOG paper “The APS Integrity Framework” by Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe, and calls for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission to be established and increased pro-integrity functions for the Australian Public Service Commissioner. This would take the APS Commissioner’s functions beyond upholding high standards of integrity and conduct to building and sustaining APS integrity strength and resilience.

Doing commissioning and contracting better

The Review also examined the role of commissioning and contracting in APS procurement, which the ANZSOG Paper “2030 and beyond: getting the work of government done” estimated at over $71 billion worth of government contracts.

The Review endorsed the paper’s conclusion that the APS needed to take a strategic commissioning approach to the delivery of public services – by objectively deciding which services and products to deliver itself and which should be purchased from or delivered by other providers, in in order to deliver the best services or outcomes for the public
ANZSOG Professor of Public Management Janine O’Flynn, co-author of the paper on contracting, said the Review was an exciting opportunity for long-term change in the APS.

“None of these recommendations are easy, but we weren’t asked to set out easy ideas. We were asked to think how the APS could get its work done and develop a transformative agenda, and this is what we did,” she said.

“Change such as this is not about the next few months, or years. It’s really about the next few decades – time will be one of the most important ingredients.”

She likened the Review to the influential Coombs Review in 1976, which also used academic input to draw together theory and practice and make long-term change.

She said Australia had pursued a relatively pragmatic and incremental approach to reform, focused on continuous improvement.

“Successful large-scale reform has been incremental and largely bipartisan, with both major parties sponsoring reform projects at various points in time. The Australian experience has shown that reform takes time and relies, in part at least, on an ability to develop a strong narrative that reflects the changing times, and appeals to different audiences.”