It's not always recognised that Australia's recent record of relative success in social and economic measures has been accomplished without an overwhelming growth in the size of government.
Despite our three levels of government, the total cost of all Australian governments has been relatively constant at around 35% of GDP for many years. This cost is one of the lowest in the OECD and lower than many other countries, including the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
As someone closely involved in the public sector over the past 40 years, my observation is that economic reform and public sector reform in that period have been two sides of the same coin, with one driving the other. Earlier waves of public sector reform in the 1990s and 2000s made a major contribution to Australia's economic success and it is this linkage that leads me to propose five new directions for a new wave of public sector reforms.
Westminster public services serve the elected government of the day, but they should maintain a focus on long-term strategic thinking. A reservoir of such strategic thinking is an investment in effective policymaking when circumstances change and the unexpected demands a response. Public administrators should be allowed to help explain long-term strategy, without usurping the role of ministers to make announcements. Authorising public servants to brief or background journalists about the technical basis of major decisions would reduce the ridiculous pressure that ministers are now placed under, and the cynicism that the public and the media have towards "spin doctored" announcements.
Structure of government
In Australia, despite the Commonwealth government raising the money and multiple state governments delivering the services, we now have examples of local accountability structures in health services that allow central government to tap into local community knowledge, skills and networks. Australia needs to start spreading those arrangements further into other critical service delivery areas, such as education, as a way of improving the quality, efficiency and responsiveness of those services. But this devolution will require a substantial investment in local systems and management capabilities, as well as a more sophisticated approach to planning, results and accountability.
Public administration also needs to put its own house in better order. Many functions could be decanted out of cumbersome departments and poured into smaller agencies with credible, professional and accountable governance structures. It should also not be beyond our wit to establish reliable, sensible performance measurement for the programs and operations of departments and agencies.
Heads of agencies and departments should be more directly accountable in their own right to parliamentary committees for delivery. There would also be merit in Australia following the UK and New Zealand in creating departmental advisory boards and involving non-executive board members from outside the public service with specialised skills in management, operations and efficiency.
Australia chronically under-invests in professional development for public servants. There is a particular deficit in public sector management skills including many of the core skills that the private sector expects in its management cohort, such as project planning and management. This can't continue long term. At the Commonwealth level in Australia, departmental secretaries now have an explicit responsibility for stewardship of their organisation. But more broadly, all public sector leaders have a responsibility to make sure that they pass on a worthwhile institution of our democracy to their successors and to the community.