With the release of the Henry report on tax the advisory group’s blueprint for Australian government, administration will slip well and truly into the background.
Providing this does not mean neglect, indifference and inactivity, this will be no bad thing.
Public services rarely benefit when they are the stuff of front-page news. It is in the nature of good public service development that it usually happens gradually, out of the limelight.
The most reassuring feature of the advisory group’s labours is its recommendations to enlarge and enhance the responsibilities and role of the Public Service Commissioner.
It will be a vital test of the Government’s integrity in this exercise that these proposals are implemented promptly and accompanied by augmented resources to allow, indeed require, the Commissioner to proceed on several fronts identified by the advisory group during the next two to three years. The blueprint itself observes: “Upfront investment will be required to enable the [Public Service Commission] to meet its extra responsibilities.”
Not to proceed immediately with strengthening the Commissioner will leave a de facto vacuum at the top of the public service which certainly needs to be filled if the reform agenda is to proceed with dispatch. Present part-time arrangements will not be adequate for the task.
The Commissioner has a busy time ahead. The twin tasks of reining in the over-sized senior executive service and restoring a unified pay and grading structure, with scope for some flexibility, will be demanding of time as well as staff, and not least in departments and agencies.
Such chores are at the heart of routine public service management. Historically this will be the fifth occasion that the APS has been the subject of such overhaul, though the last occasion was nearly half a century ago.
The modern reformers will need to revive some lost arts in the business of classification review and streamlining but they will have available to them many facilities which their predecessors could not even dream of.
Another big task will be establishing an integrated framework for professional development and training, commencing with induction programs for newly recruited staff.
This has been a neglected field in Australian government administration, and something of a self-inflicted wound. Back in the mid-1990s, when staff development should have been a central feature of the reform endeavour of that era, the public service leadership of the time was explicitly dismissive of the need for any concerted action on this front.
Now there is an opportunity to address this deficiency systematically and comprehensively. Fresh thinking will be needed and success is unlikely if the task is off-loaded to consultants and academics (quasi-consultants).
This article was first published Canberra Times, 4 May, 2010.
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