New President’s ‘view from the outside’By Terry Moran*
Like Australia, the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) is a federation and around the country our constituent organisations are doing great work in a very challenging operating environment.
That said, there is real reason to be confident about what IPAA does well.
Last year, more than 20,000 people attended IPAA events and professional
development courses and our national congress was one of the biggest and best gatherings of public administrators I have ever attended.
That’s why one of my main objectives as National President will be to support the work of IPAA around Australia and make sure that heads of state and Commonwealth public services see the value of working closely with their local IPAA.
My other objective is bigger.
I want to speak for further reform of public administration in Australia.
Since the 1980s, Australian administrators have helped develop and implement a series of economic and social reforms that have served our nation well.
These reforms were hotly debated at the time but in the long run have paid huge dividends for Australia.
The growth in prosperity that public policy has helped create over the past 30 years hasn’t been a zero sum game and the pie that the public service has played a part in baking has grown substantially.
Whatever their faults, economic indicators like GDP are at least easy to measure.
But other indicators about public administration’s ability to deliver important public services are also positive.
For example, recent research from the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the Nous Group showed Australians now have a strikingly more positive view of our healthcare system compared to 2008.
Then, 63 per cent of Australians felt: “There are some good things in the health care system, however fundamental changes are required to make it work better”.
By 2012, that figure had dropped to 54 per cent.
Also, 21 per cent of Australians agreed: “On the whole, the health care system works pretty well and only minor changes are required to make it work better”.
By 2012 that had risen to 37 per cent.
These are very striking improvements, in particular because they run counter to the accepted media narrative of failure and inertia in health reform.
Having fought on both sides of the COAG engagements, these figures tell me that while there are still difficult Commonwealth-state funding issues to resolve, public administrators have nevertheless managed to create real improvements in our health system.
Quite rightly, the public does not know, or care, about the complexities of those improvements, which have included: devolution to governance arrangements at the local level; standard pricing of efficient delivery of services provided at the local level; empowered hospital leaders with conventional management discretions; and integrated regulation through arm’s length authorities and transparency on performance information, with patients able to assess the standing of local institutions.
The public clearly likes what it sees in what these reforms deliver to individuals and the community and I think these success factors in health reform also point the way towards what we need to do in many other areas of public service delivery.
One of the most pressing areas is education.
Currently, one in eight Australian adults are at, or below, minimum reading standards and roughly half of all adults have difficulty with basic workplace numeracy and literacy skills.
There also is evidence that our international ranking in education, measured by the Program for International Student Assessment scores, is actually falling at a time when our trading partners’ results are rising.
Given the importance of education to our nation’s economic future, those indicators should be setting off flashing red lights for everyone.
But David Gonski’s recent, excellent review of our education system also noted a more subtle, deeply corrosive, problem.
We now have a growing and significant gap between our highest and lowest performing students.
That performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many OECD countries, particularly those with high-performance school systems.
There also is an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.
So, we are losing what has for many older Australians been a fundamental truth: if you work hard at school, the education system will help lift you out of poverty or disadvantage.
Unless we make special arrangements for the disadvantaged – they won’t have the support needed for a fair go at acquiring what education offers.
That is all the more depressing when you consider that over the past 40 years we have injected billions of dollars into our education system and, by one count, have launched more than 140 separate reform initiatives, inside and outside the classroom.
All these reforms were brought in with good intent but what public administrators know all too well is that initiatives typically leave policy detritus scattered behind.
In education, the policy detritus of that 40 years is now consuming resources that school leaders might better use to deliver innovation, rather than being tied up on a grant-giving or administrative treadmill.
If each of those 140 plus specific initiatives were pharmaceuticals, there would have been exhaustive testing of impacts and benefits, identification of harmful effects, assessment of costs and benefits, and ongoing monitoring.
That has not been the way of things in education.
As a result kids, teachers and principals have been less well supported than they might have been.
The uncomfortable truth is that we have shaped our children’s future through a system dependent on change by “action learning”.
Too often our actions have been based on the enthusiasms of the moment, supported by expensive programmatic resources – confetti sprinkled lightly over a system – and not on evidence-based policy design.
Fortunately, I think this situation is beginning to change.
From my perspective, one of the most positive shifts in public administration recently has been the renewed interest in evidence-based policy.
It was very striking to see the interest at the recent IPAA Congress in the work of the UK Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Unit and its work using controlled trials in different communities.
There are also emerging examples, in places such as Cape York, of schools that have historically suffered high disadvantage and are now beginning to use some of the methods pioneered successfully in health reform.
I have picked education and health as two examples because they are fundamental to the value proposition for public administration, which also was a theme of the IPAA Congress.
Health and education are two of the foundation services that citizens expect the state to build and maintain and although there are opportunities to involve the private sector in their delivery, there always will be a major component in those two services that remains in the hands of public administrators.
Those are also good examples to use because they remind us that a debate about public sector reform isn’t some dry and obscure discussion.
Our success in launching the next wave of public sector reform has the potential to create another wave of opportunities for all Australians and I think that is a goal worth pursuing.
Building IPAA’s relationship with state and Commonwealth public sectors and driving the argument for a new wave of public sector reform are big tasks and, in truth, are beyond the capacity of one individual.
That’s why I’m looking forward to working with all of IPAA’s many supporters and to seeing you at an IPAA event soon.
* Terry Moran is a former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the newly-appointed President of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA).
This article first appeared in the January-March 2013 edition of Public Administration Today, IPAA’s quarterly magazine.