After 21 years of self-government, it was clearly time for a long, hard look at the ACT government and public service. The Hawke review (Governing the City State: One ACT government One Public Service), as its title suggests, delivers an agenda for change that stresses greater integration of purpose in government and a stronger esprit de corps in the ACT Public Service.
The recommendations are wide-ranging, but their main thrust is structural. The review recommends that the ACT government become one agency, containing Directorates representing major functions, and including a very powerful Chief Minister’s Department. The heads of each Directorate will report both to the relevant Minister, and to the Chief Executive and Head of the ACT Public Service, who will also be the Secretary to Cabinet.
What to make of this? Those who have seen these changes as a move towards municipal government seem rather wide of the mark. The model for this report is not local government, but devolved government, UK-style – specifically, the government of Scotland. Dr Hawke is looking as much towards the ACT’s state-like functions as he is towards its municipal ones, and if his recommendations are carried through, the Chief Minister will be much more of a Premier than he is a Mayor. Moreover, if all goes according to plan, Ministers will control portfolios that sit comfortably with COAG’s new-style Ministerial Councils, hopefully strengthening the Territory’s intergovernmental relations.
Was this the outcome that Jon Stanhope wanted? Most probably it is. It consolidates the Chief Minister’s position as head of the government, while giving a cleaner edge to its municipal functions. Moreover, the new Directorates will be located in the big new Territory office block the government has long been planning to build next to the Assembly. If the public thinks of this edifice as City Hall, then so much the better.
Is it the outcome that the ACT needs? Well, yes and no. Allan Hawke is a good management man, and for a management man, deciding what your objectives are, and then working out efficient ways of carrying them out, is the essence of the game. The review loves words like ‘strategic’ and ‘priority’. The idea is that the government will energise and direct the public service by focusing on a number of key priorities, rather than as at present, working towards the multitude of objectives expressed through the outputs-based reporting of departments.
Ministers, according to Dr Hawke will not be bypassed, but will work more collegially than in the past. A Strategic Board consisting of heads of Directorates, and chaired by the Head of the ACT Public Service will ensure that Cabinet functions at an appropriate level, and the bureaucracy settles issues between agencies that don’t need to go to Cabinet.
But what is all this likely to mean for citizens of the ACT? And in particular, will these changes improve the capacity of the government to interact more productively with the public than in the past? The report is certainly right to say that the ACT
public service gets bogged down repeatedly in its own processes. And it is also right to suggest that the workplace culture within a number of agencies is insular and unaccountable. If the heads of the new Directorates foster ways of working that are both more professional and more intelligently responsive than in the past, everyone will benefit. The report’s arguments for the creation of a single public service organisation, and a focus on clearer employment relations and stronger workforce development are greatly to be welcomed in this context (although please, let at least some services, such as ACT Parks and Conservation and ACTION, keep their logos!).
On the other hand, those with a concern about particular issues will not find much comfort here. Planning is a case in point. Putting the Land Development Agency in one Directorate and ACTPLA in another, will do little to alter the ad hoccery that characterises the day-to-day reality of decision-making. Nor is priority-setting likely to inject more balance into proceedings. There is a danger that the government’s over-arching priority of growth, more growth and still more growth will simply become all the more obsessive.
The review notes, quite sensibly, that in many respects, the ACT Public Service performs quite well, and that wholesale changes are not lightly to be undertaken. So, rather than assuming that the underlying problem was a lack of strategy, a better approach might have been to devote more effort to working out what the ACT Public Service does well.
There is a text-box on one of the best initiatives to date, Canberra Connect. Now, Canberra Connect may well be strategic and outcomes-focused, but that is not the thinking that gave rise to it. Rather, it is a commonsense way of connecting people to their government. It is staffed by excellent operators, who go out of their way to think through the nature of what they are being asked, and connect the person to the right official. It is somewhat ominous that this excellent initiative, now located within Territory and Municipal Services, is to be taken over by the Chief Minister’s Department.
The second example would be ACT Health’s walk-in clinic, where nurse-practitioners treat people who would otherwise have found themselves waiting endlessly for a GP appointment, or who would have endured a long wait in the hospital’s emergency room. Again, while the clinic may well be outcomes-focused, this is not the reason that it works so well. Even in a small system, the best results come when good people are allowed to get on with their jobs and are given the encouragement and support they need to do them.
The government already has strategic priorities. What it needs is more balance in the values it pursues, a clearer understanding of the conflicts of interest to which it is subject, and a better sense of how to engage the public (and the Assembly) in its deliberations.
There is, as the review itself acknowledges, a limit on what it is possible to achieve by moving around the pieces of the mosaic. They will never make a perfect picture because government (and reality) are just not like that. The review’s best parts are about creating and invigorating a more unified ACT Public Service. Let’s hope that
this objective, rather than the consolidation of power, becomes the implementers’ main priority.