There's plenty of concern for the future of public servants as jobs are cut. But some experts see grounds for optimism for bureaucrats who are prepared to innovate, break down barriers, and embrace technological change.
In Queensland the pain of public service cuts is seen on the streets and privately in public service offices. Other states have also cut staff.
Now we hear that the Commonwealth is about to embark on a further round of savage public service cost-cutting in order to meet its budget surplus target in light of falling mining revenues and new spending promises.
Despite this, there is an oddly up-beat tone to the international congress
run by the Institute of Public Administration Australia in Melbourne this week. Rather than getting despondent, some 850 public servants, consultants and academics have gathered around the theme of "valuing public administration".
Even this number seems at times lost in the vast windswept caverns of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a government monument to the "build it and they will come" model of conferences. Perhaps it is the absence of Queenslanders -- there are only 11 Queensland delegates out of the 850. I spoke with one who had the foresight to book their conference place and airfares well before the election of the Newman government: not one colleagues had permission to attend.
Those from other states and territories who were allowed to attend have been talking about new ways of work, innovation (overrated and not possible in the public service, apparently), leadership, better regulation and the like.
So is this the public service band playing "nearer my God to thee" on the deck of a sinking Titanic?
Not in the broad sweep of history. That is probably the explanation for the air of optimism. Speakers have delved back in time, as far back the ancient Babylonians. Napoleon’s immense contribution to public administration worldwide is known and celebrated in France and Francophone countries, but less in those with an English heritage: that damn Arthur Wellesley chap! It led to much speculation about how different Australian public management (and colonial food) would have been if Napoleon had been chosen -- as almost happened -- to be on the crew of the La Perouse expedition to Australia in 1788.
In that sweep, cuts in Australian public services at present seem almost immaterial. The role of the public service in delivering services will undoubtedly continue. Nevertheless, the conference exhibited a fundamental clash between 19th century public service institutions and 21st century ways of working.
The keynote address, the Garran Oration, featured the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Dr Shashi Tharoor, lamenting the state of India’s foreign service. He described some 900 foreign service officers with only (!) 3000 support staff, resisting lateral recruitment from outside. An official confronted with an outsider would react with horror at "polluting the pristine purity of his service". The solution he proposed was more, better-skilled, staff -- a scenario not a million miles from what former diplomats propose for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
It was an excellent speech, well delivered: but an old paradigm. In this century, is the diplomatic model inherited from the European "great powers" of the 19th century still a viable model?
By contrast, other speakers recognised the different ways of working that new technologies offered. Bill Eggers from the US
outlined a myriad of new forms of service delivery that crossed over traditional models, and used private, community and individual resources including crowdsourcing as different ways to achieve public value faster and better.
It is not just technology that matters but different ways of working: fewer barriers, less differentiation based on who provides the service and more concentration on the service provided. Whether it is government, companies, or individuals, really what matters is what gets delivered, not whether it falls into the traditional bureaucratic structures.
If the public service has a future, it has to be braver and embrace these approaches. The conference bifurcated into those who were already doing it, and those who thought it a novelty that would make little real difference.
The best role models put forward came from a presentation on public servants in cinema. Against audience expectations, the picture was not universally negative. Portrayals were slightly more negative than positive, with many mixed, and only 29% abrasive, rude or deceptive as opposed to merely bumbling. The good ones were like agents J and K in Men in Black: public servants dedicated to the future of the world, saving humans from hostile forces we neither see nor understand.