The Australian Public Service has a proud history of strong policy development. We also have some world class social delivery systems — Medicare is a good example. However, when it comes to complex social issues, like Indigenous disadvantage or juvenile justice, our record is marred.
This is why the Turnbull Governments recent announcement of an independent review of the Australian Public Service with the aim of delivering better services is welcome.
The review panel includes one of Australia’s foremost academics, an experienced former bureaucrat and business leaders. But what’s striking is that there is no one on the panel with direct social service delivery experience. This seems a peculiar omission. If we are going to review the APS to improve service delivery, shouldn’t we start by examining some of its most significant failures?
The failure to invest sufficient time and effort on policy implementation and evaluation are some of the key reasons for ongoing policy failure.
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Those delivering social services on behalf of the government, like Save the Children, know this. As do the clients whose lives depend on those social services. Let me provide an example from Save the Children’s work with one of our juvenile justice clients, *Dave.
We know a trusting relationship with this kind of client is critical as they transition out of detention. Yet, different funding streams mean Dave had a different support worker inside the facility to the one he had in the community, breaking the relationship at the time when Dave needed the most support to help set him on a pathway away from reoffending.
We also know housing is the bedrock on which progress is made with this group.
To pay for housing Dave will need to obtain housing support from Centrelink. To access housing support Dave needs a bank account which means he needs sufficient identification. But Dave doesn’t even have a birth certificate. Facing such a dauntingly fragmented service system, is it any wonder Dave might return to crime?
Reform needs to focus more on how services are delivered, rather than the policies themselves. At-risk youth like Dave need a service response that is client-focused, connected and providing of the support needed to break out of the entrenched disadvantage he faces.
The short political cycle means politicians are seldom held accountable for the actual outcomes programs deliver. Collaboration with other departments, other governments or non-government organisations can all reduce control without changing responsibility, and tendering and funding arrangements often provide disincentive to collaborate.
Most public servants try to ascertain which organisations make the greatest contribution toward solving a problem. Service providers, in turn, compete to be chosen by emphasising how their activities produce the greatest effect. This behaviour is in direct contrast to the evidence of what works.
Rather than promoting collaboration, the system results in thousands of organisations trying to invent independent solutions to major social problems, sometimes increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress.
Save the Children’s experience is that the brief time periods allowed by tender applications increase the strain on local relationships, particularly those with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. It is also costly for the organisations involved.
We should be looking to consolidate contracts in distinct locations so we can hold one agency to account. Greater accountability will create incentives to use the best available processes. Improved monitoring and evaluation would better track progress.
We need tender processes that encourage consultation and collaboration with other services providers, and most crucially, the clients whose lives are impacted by those services. A more transparent and consultative process, with longer lead-times and longer contracts, commensurate with time taken to achieve goals, is critically important.
This should not require greater public investment. In fact, there is an opportunity for significant productivity improvements. A genuine focus on outcomes, rather than inputs or outputs, supported by robust evaluation could set off a public-sector revolution.
The biggest benefit would be for people like Dave and the communities impacted by his behaviour. Now that’s public-sector reform worth investing in.
Paul Ronalds is the CEO of Save the Children Australia.