How the Australian public sector has changed for the worse

Posted on April 20, 2017

This is the final article in our series on ‘20 years of change in the public sector’. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve drawn on our 20 years’ experience in consulting to look at how  the Australian public sector has changed over time and which changes have had a positive impact on our people, our work and our community. Now it’s time to look at the flip side of the coin: how the public sector has changed for the worse.

  1. The devaluing of the public sector

An overarching theme of the survey we conducted last year was the devaluing of the public sector over the last 20 years. While Australians have always been happy to be derogatory towards government services, we seem to be living in an era where badmouthing the public sector and public servants is almost a sport (witness the mindless repetition of the term ‘fat cat’ in most news articles about the public service).

Public service agencies themselves are being used as political footballs and there is a distinct lack of understanding about the immense role the institution has played, and continues to play, in shaping the nation. I’m sure Americans would envy our relatively stable, independent public service in light of the attacks on their civil service under the new Trump administration.

These attacks have highlighted the benefits of a Westminster-style system that is independent from the government of the day and may reinstate some of the confidence in the public sector, although it’s difficult to say how much will change in the years ahead. Perhaps the growing focus on inequality will help Australians understand that the role of government is to not only build an economy, but provide a stronger and fairer nation for all.

  1. Efficiency as the end, not the means

There also seems to be a prevailing belief that small government is inherently good government. Ronald Reagan espoused this same belief when he (in)famously said, “government is not the solution; government is the problem”. Our obsession with shrinking the size of our public sector means there is a perception that we must reduce costs at all costs—evidenced by the government, opposition and media’s obsession with what share of GDP the government sector is consuming. In doing this, we ignore the ways that public spending is improving the quality of life and wellbeing of Australians.

Language is a symptom of where we are going wrong. While there have been efforts over the last 20 years to use plain English, survey participants agreed that many government communications are as obfuscating as ever, often due to the use of impenetrable management speak adopted from the private sector. Do we really want our public service agencies to be leaner and meaner?

Rather than continuing to focus on the number of dollars expended, we still need much better systems of evaluating the results we achieve for communities and clients, through the use of tools like Friedman’s RBA and the adoption of program evaluation frameworks.

  1. Deskilling

One of the impacts of a shrinking public sector is the loss of public servants, but it has also led to other shifts, including outsourcing, casualisation of the workforce and an increased use of external consultants to carry out what used to be core government work. This has contributed to what AFR journalist Laura Tingle calls ‘political amnesia’, or the loss of corporate memory and a solid grounding in policy knowledge that was once considered a hallmark of working in the public sector.

In previous opinion pieces, we’ve talked about the rise of the generalist manager and the misguided belief that all management skills are portable. Our survey showed that this belief is still present in many government organisations. As a result, there has been a hollowing out effect noted by some survey respondents. It’s important to ensure there is a good balance of generalist and specialist skills—at Nexus we pride ourselves on complementing the specialist and technical skills already present within government organisations, in a collaborative and respectful way.

  1. Political influence

The political influence on the public sector was the strongest theme that came out of the Nexus survey, with common expressions of concern about the rise of ministerial advisors, some of whom display contempt for the public sector and a lack of understanding about their role in the wider political institution. The introduction of contracts for senior executives and the 24-hour media cycle has also placed public servants under relentless scrutiny, resulting in an increased emphasis on ‘managing up’ and on the short term over the big picture and on crisis management over public policy.

Overall, there have been significant changes to the public sector over the last 20 years. By looking back and understanding the good, the bad and the indifferent, we can move forward with a stronger sense of what our programs and services will need in the future. If you’re looking for some expert advice on the best way to move forward, get in touch to book a consultation today.