How has government changed for the better over the last 20 years?

Posted on March 14, 2017

This is the second article in our series on ‘20 years of change in the public sector’. If you missed the first one, you can read it here.

Our recent survey among clients and colleagues allowed us to reflect on the changes that have taken place in the public sector over the last 20 years, as well as determine how these changes have improved the way government services are delivered to the community. Here are six improvements that we believe have had a significant impact on the public sector over this time.

  1. Improved accountability

The last 20 years has seen an increased emphasis on accountability, although sometimes this is sometimes grounded in theory rather than practice. More importantly, there has been a shift in emphasising the results or outcomes achieved than the dollars spent. A recent example is the annual Closing the Gap report. While the lack of progress makes for dismal reading, it is at least concerned with tangible outcomes for Aboriginal people and communities.

  1. Enhanced customer service

The public sector has significantly improved its customer service in recent years, including better external communication. Some of this has been transformational, such as applying for licences, accessing real-time timetables and generating awareness through public information campaigns. The establishment of Service NSW, which consolidates common transactions across government using multiple channels (phone, online and in-store) is a classic example.

  1. New technology for staff and customers

Many of these improvements in service delivery are a result of the improvement to digital technologies, which have not only revolutionised the way government services are delivered, but also the way citizens can engage with government. In recent projects, we have seen the way telehealth services (where clinicians provide information and health care to patients, families and carers via a tablet) has improved access to specialist healthcare and reduced travel and accommodation costs for people living in rural and remote areas of Australia.

  1. A focus on service co-design

There is also an increased willingness to engage with clients and communities in the planning and delivery of public services, although progress in this area is seen as ‘baby steps’ by some survey respondents, as it doesn’t yet represent true co-design or service design. Nexus has recently worked with NSW Health on projects where families and carers are actively involved in identifying weaknesses with current services and solutions. This represents a fundamental shift from viewing clients as passive recipients to those with a right to be actively involved in designing and improving services.

  1. Better collaboration among agencies

Just as government has improved the way it engages with customers or consumers, it has also improved collaboration between agencies over the last 20 years. This is especially important for complex problems that do not belong to one domain or portfolio. An example of this improvement is the establishment of the NSW Data Analytics Centre, which was designed to unlock the power of big data and provide NSW Government agencies with the insights they need to make better decisions. At Nexus, we’ve seen the benefits in working across silos on family violence and place-based initiatives.

  1. Improved organisational culture

The final area of improvement concerns workplace culture and professional development. Many of our survey participants noted the increased professionalism of the public sector workforce over the last 20 years. This includes a higher proportion of staff with tertiary qualifications and a renewed interest in graduate development programs designed for employees in the public sector. An example we’ve witnessed at Nexus is the transformation in traditional inspector and regulatory officer roles available. Many years ago these were generalist roles with on-the-job training, whereas now they are more specialised roles, with specific training required in investigative methods and evidence gathering.

Of course, there are caveats to these perceived improvements, many of which come with what I call a ‘yeah…but’. In next month’s opinion piece, we’ll explore the downsides or challenges to these changes in the public sector over the last 20 years, based on the responses to the survey and our own insights from working with government agencies over this time. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like to arrange a consultation, get in touch with our team.