Anne Tiernan is a Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

At the QCOSS AGM in November 2015, Professor Tiernan discussed public sector reform, and bringing the voice of community to the policy table.


So some of you know that I do a lot of work with government, that I teach in professional programs here, at the University of Melbourne, and at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. I worked with a bunch of senior public service leaders in many jurisdictions, and in 2015 what I've been saying to them is this, and I think it's relevant for you.

I've said to them, if it feels weird it's cause it is weird. The context of public policy and politics in Australia has never been so volatile, except maybe in the first decade of Federation. If you want to influence policy, I think, and the outcomes that you are going to get, a nuanced understanding of that environment and an appreciation of both the direction of policy and the competing pressures on getting there, I think is essential for what you want to do.

Most of you would know, and will have experienced in your own organisations, that for the last four years we've seen a continuous process of reform and change that's dramatically reshaped the framework of public service provision, and the arrangements through which services are delivered.

These are commonly referred to as the new public management reforms, they're frequently associated with the rise of neo-liberal economics and a critique of government that gained popularity under the Thatcher and Reagan governments, and spread to other systems, including ours. And in fact Australia and New Zealand are very enthusiastic proponents of public sector reform, but very interestingly, for reasons that we could talk about, Queensland was remarkably slow to embrace those, and I think we remain among the least reformed of Australia's public services.

So scholars like me trace three broad phases of public sector reform. The first represented a shift from the traditional public administration, dominated by government and run through hierarchy, to this new public management, and in itself kind of had three waves. 

The first part of the new public management was managerialism, professional management, performance measurement, management by results and value for money principles, this would all be very familiar to you.

In the second wave governments embraced what became known as marketisation, with its attendant focus on markets, efficiency and competition. And this sort of challenged traditional monopolies and governments withdrew from various areas of provision where they concluded there were functioning markets. Privatisation, contracting out, quasi-markets, this kind of stuff. Marketisation became this kind of catch all term for all of that. And contestability, a term that came into wide use and abuse in Queensland over the past couple of years and is now a bit reviled I think, fits in this kind of phase.

The third wave of new public management and maybe where we are at now, focuses on service delivery and citizen choice. Now, I'll come back to the fact that these obviously aren't linear, these things have been going on in different ways and different sectors, different parts of government at different times. It's critical for our purposes this morning to understand that these reforms have been anything but coherent and linear. You might read about that in the textbook, but it's not part of how they've unfolded. They've been discontinuous, and have ridden the fortunes of politics, and of course in Australia, 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth. 

But they accumulate, and they're often unfinished, and people don't know what their status is, and I'm sure you're seeing that, with regard to the contestability debate with the officials that you deal with at the moment. I'd like a dollar for every time I've seen that before.

In the UK context, some colleagues Wood and Lodge described a "Civil Service Reform Syndrome" in which initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, they leave behind residues of varying size and style. These processes, usually in the form of ambitious blueprints, centrally led and driven from the top down, create intended and unintended consequences, that take a lot of time to percolate through delivery systems.

By the time their effects are evidenced, the reform caravan has moved on, the reform proponents and particularly politicians, seldom stay long enough to see what the results were. In recent experiences we've seen, those people are supplanted by new brooms with limited institutional memory or understanding of what's gone, but their own strangely strong views about what needs to reform and change, how they're going to shake up perceived inefficiencies and problems with the existing arrangement.

The key thing of course, is that new public management has introduced new actors and interests into the design and delivery of public policies and services, creating important challenges for government around co-ordination and coherence. Contracts and service level agreements replace hierarchy, requiring public managers to develop new, mainly managerial skills. That's what's being rewarded, commissioning and contracting, project management skills, and these kinds of things.

So scholars describe these mixed systems of provision that resulted from new public management, and this proliferation of actors and interests, as representing a shift from government to governance. The new public governance, as we talk about it, recognises that governments work with and through networks or webs of organisations to achieve shared policy objectives. And of course delivery chains become infinitely more complex in that context, and they have to be steered rather than managed through traditional hierarchy.

And if you think about the complex, the most complex of our delivery systems, the large ones, education, health and transport, network actors comprise a very complex mix of public, private and not-for-profit providers, and they exist in relationships of interdependency. They have to bargain and exchange resources - information, money, influence, whatever, expertise - to get things done. But they rely on each other to get stuff done, and if one part of that system doesn't work then the whole thing falls over.

My colleague Rod Rose, who if you know anything about network theories is a bit of a pioneer in this area, distinguishes networks, this new way of doing things, from markets and hierarchies, because, he argues, the central co-ordinating mechanism needs to be trust. Shared values and norms are what hold these delivery systems together, as well as, you know, contracts and other mechanisms.

For academics, the shift from government to governance and from new public management to new public governance, is just how things work, we just think that's a descriptive account of how things work now. And it's something we take for granted, and we recognise how much more complex this has made the task of public management - managing a mix of bureaucracy, markets and networks - and it requires then, whether or not they understand this and have developed them, to deploy a much more sophisticated array of management skills and strategies than was required of them in the past.

But the thing that hasn't gone away, for them, is the need to manage Ministers, and that's the one constant that hasn't changed, and that creates pressures and tensions I think, that makes their jobs very hard and where you can improvise with them in the task of what they have to do.

So I mentioned earlier what's probably, if I'm honest, my deep skepticism about how well these developments are understood. I don't, and I didn't, hear a lot of nuance or sophistication in debates about public sector reform in Queensland over the past few years, in fact I heard a lot of stuff about privatisation and contracting out, that sounded pretty 1980's to my scholarly ears.

Thirty years of experimentation and experience means a far broader range of instruments than just those blunt ones that were part of that early phase of marketisation, is available. You know, there's a whole lot that can be done to catalyse reform, using a mix of mechanisms.

So my own view, based on research and my early experience of reforms in the Commonwealth and here, is that efficiencies achieved through trade-offs, innovation and market testing should be available for re-investment in service improvement. That's a very important dimension that made the Commonwealth reforms quite successful, because it gave people a stake in reinvesting the things, from efficiencies they could achieve, in what they knew were the next phase, R&D, things they thought would deliver benefits.

I'm not naive about this, I understand that it's fraught with implementation risks and challenges, but I do see real opportunities for local level experimentation and adjustments based on real time evidence and impacts from the local context, and I'm optimistic that micro, bottom-up initiatives to catalyse innovation that can then be disseminated and scaled have a much higher likelihood of success than the innumerable reform blueprints that we've seen handed down.

And lots and lots of the things that you're doing, or you wouldn't be doing them are efficacious and beneficial for clients. So what of those are you doing, that is empowering experience, or some of the language that you'll start to see Morrison talk about - where are you benchmarking, comparing, showing return on investment, these kinds of things. Where are you doing that? 

Well it's probably in pilots and trials that you've done. It's probably in the adaptation of practice and refinement of practice that's showing better. Well you need to be thinking more systematically about that, and are there lateral lessons from other areas of human services delivery - and I know you're engaged in a broad spectrum of those - that could be adapted in place, or from aged care to disability, I don't know - you're the experts - that can show those kinds of improvements.

Because what you don't want to do is accept a construction of this narrative, and I'll come back to the narrative - you don't want to accept a problem definition that says: this sector needs competitive reform because it's inefficient. That's not true, right, it's not true. There'll be parts of it where it's true, there'll be parts of it where it's sub-optimal, you know that, but you know, there's big parts of government that are like that, there's big parts of the private sector, oh and my god, I haven't even started on universities.

The point is, you've got to contest the problem definitions, it seems to me, and you've got to do that by going well actually here's how the world works, here's where we're at in this journey of reform and here's what we're doing that's either already on a path to the outcome and is showing demonstrable benefits. And I think if you start to do that then that will be very powerful because seriously, in the armoury of argument and evidence, it's just not strong. It's just not strong and they don't have it.

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