The blueprint for the reform of the Australian Public Service that has emerged from an advisory group established by the Prime Minister last September should become the basis for a key economic reform over the coming decade — if the government decides to implement its recommendations.

The public service is facing more, and bigger, challenges than at any time in its recent history, and how it handles them will be a key factor in the quality of government Australia gets in the decades ahead. Imagine if our Treasury had responded to the GFC with the same lack of vigor and adherence to economic orthodoxy we saw overseas. Imagine, in fact, if our economic advisers over the past 25 years had performed on a par with their counterparts in most Western countries. Having a high-quality public service matters directly to Australians, even if they never use a public hospital or educate their children in public schools.

The challenges facing the APS include being at the pointy end of the ageing workforce problem, facing the most difficult fiscal circumstances since the mid-1990s, trying to invest in and co-ordinate an effective deployment of IT to improve service delivery, and having to serve a government that in direct contrast to its predecessor is demanding strategic thinking and creativity in policy development and service delivery.

Some of these problems would be addressed through a revamped Australian Public Service Commission, which would be resourced and encouraged to play a much greater leadership role. It will have carriage of the implementation of reforms agreed by government, and will also take over responsibility for public service industrial relations from the workplace relations area of Julia Gillard’s department. The new Public Service Commissioner Steve Sedgwick will have to drive the turnaround of the APSC, which was sidelined by the Howard government, to turn it into a leadership agency alongside PM&C, Treasury and Finance.

The group has also proposed some reforms to establish not merely a more strategically focused bureaucracy but, perhaps, one more resistant to political pressure. A Secretaries’ Board would be set up to provide collective leadership, identify long-term priorities, pursue a long-term work program and consult with external groups such as business and community groups. The board will be assisted by an “APS 200” of deputy secretary-level officers and selected agency heads.

The process of appointing and terminating secretaries would also be made more rigorous and remove the implicit financial threat of dismissal — although to an extent this formalises the approach the Howard government eventually adopted post-Paul Barratt of offering secretaries who’d fallen out of favour a diplomatic posting or similar golden handshake.

The simultaneous release by the Remuneration Tribunal of the first part of its report on the role and remuneration of secretaries yesterday drew more media attention than the blueprint itself.  The Rem Tribunal has long thought secretaries should be paid more, and has proposed that several major portfolios be raised to the same level of remuneration as that received by the heads of PM&C, Treasury and Defence.  It has also argued that the secretaries of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury have particularly demanding and critical roles that should be better recognised.  By how much, the tribunal will reveal later in the year.

The blueprint also proposes ways to improve service delivery, an issue that now must be considered in the context of the insulation saga.  One of the myths recycled during the media’s witless coverage of that program was that the Commonwealth Public Service doesn’t deliver services.  In fact many Commonwealth agencies deliver frontline services, and do it well, but program delivery skills are by no means universal.  The blueprint proposes to make greater use of State and territory and local government and community and private sector service deliverers, using simpler funding arrangements, ensuring that where necessary Australians can get locally co-ordinated services for complex issues.  This will partly be done by developing greater in-house service delivery expertise in departments, but also by developing toolkits and common resources like APS-wide contracts and performance measurement.

It also proposes giving more information about policy development and implementation to the community and asking for greater feedback (a “citizen’s survey” of the often-complex attitudes toward governments service delivery is suggested).  PM&C head Terry Moran, who led the advisory group, is also keen on “agency capability reviews” in which eminent external reviewers would assess how departments were improving their capacity for strategic policy thinking, effective service delivery and managing its talent.

Some of the proposals have been seen plenty of times before.  The problem of APS diversity is a vexed one that has defeated many good people many times.  The public service, particularly in Canberra, does not look much like the rest of Australia, although it has improved markedly in the past 30 years in the representation of women.  And all departments would love to be able to devote resources to developing a strategic policy capability — but it’s tough when ministers demand constant attention to every minor bushfire and there’s an efficiency dividend slashing recruitment budgets.

The blueprint’s proposal for new structures and a revamped and more potent APSC will be the critical reforms, particularly in relation to better co-ordination of policy across government and better workforce planning.  Given the likely lack of spare capacity in the Australian workforce in coming years, recruiting and keeping the best and the brightest in the public sector — on lower salaries than they could earn privately, and often requiring them to move to Canberra, which is hardly the home of excitement — is a key challenge that will have a significant bearing on the quality of advice governments will get in coming decades.

For all that Australians love to mock bureaucrats, dealing with these challenges effectively will affect every Australian in the future.