Innovation Month 2014 – Presentation by Professor John Halligan

The public service is operating in an environment of constant change. How do we manage this, and what are the different models available for how the public sector might operate differently?

On the afternoon of Thursday 10 July, Professor John Halligan gave a presentation as part of Innovation Month 2014 on ‘Change governance and alternative models for the public sector’.

The below is an attempt to capture some of the Professor’s points.

  • Professor Halligan noted that there were common issues in many of the Anglophone countries (e.g. UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), particularly the twin agendas of reducing the size of the public service, and attempts to redesign the system of government for a smaller public service

  • This has involved, to varying degrees, discussion around outsourcing, an increase in reliance on ministerial advisors, privatisation, devolution, and de-concentrating (e.g. moving public servants/responsibilities out of Canberra)

  • Since the reform era of the 1980s, non-government parties have taken on some of the traditional public service responsibilities, with the UK now having the world’s second largest outsourcing market outsourcing market, after the US (the latter outsources some administration of government programmes). There has also been a growing use of capability reviews, something that originated in the UK, and then was borrowed and adapted by Australian and New Zealand as an assessment tool

  • Many of these capability reviews have noted fluctuation in skills and capability. Of note for this particular discussion, capability around risk management and internal red tape were often identified as an issue for organisations across the three countries, something that potentially has implications for their ability to engage with innovation

  • If there are issues with capability, particularly as it relates to innovation, what then are other possible models available to the public sector? What are the alternatives to the current departmental type approach?

  • The Professor made reference to the work of Professor Donald Kettl, an observer of the US system, and the issues he has identified about bureaucratic systems having operated like vending machines (so only certain types of limited transactions), focusing on fixing the wrong problem, changing problems to fit organisations (rather than changing organisations to address problems), and using routine strategies for non-routine problems

  • Professor Kettl would advocate the public service focus on policy and contract its responsibilities for more leveraged governance – using networks and non-routine services to tackle issues

  • Another theorist is Professor John Kotter. He proposes that attention needs to be given to both bureaucracies and networks (e.g. strategic consulting companies), that there should be a dual operating system, with hierarchy on one side and networks on the other. The network side liberates information, and is more dynamic, with initiatives that can coalesce and disband over time. The hierarchy side is useful for other types of activities, particularly those that are more routine. However, a caveat of this approach is that the networks side may not always be targeted to the broader needs of the public

  • Another model available is for agencies to purely focus on policy, with delivery completely separate or devolved to lower levels of government

  • Or there are ‘fluid’ teams, which advocates moving agencies to be more team based and focussed on particular issues

  • Alternatively, Professor Halligan noted less mainstream ideas of dispensing with the civil service altogether or through more area based approaches

  • In terms of the applicability of these different models to the Australian Public Service, Professor Halligan suggested it was an open question as to how or whether the public service should be transformed

  • He noted that there has been an ongoing effort in many countries to ensure better and more joined-up or collaborative government (e.g. in Australia, Finland and New Zealand), however these initiatives have had limited success

  • Professor Halligan also noted that it is not always clear what is meant by collaboration – true collaboration is likely when there is shared accountability and responsibility.

It was a very interesting discussion, and in light of the theme of Innovation Month 2014 (Empower, Collaborate, Transform) it gave a lot of food for thought. When we talk about transformation, do we have a clear idea or conception of what that transformation will be? Do we really know how much collaboration is happening, and are we putting in place structures that will enable it?

We’d like to give a special thank you to Professor Halligan for coming to present on this interesting topic for Innovation Month 2014.