I sometimes wonder if the real Malcolm Turnbull was kidnapped and replaced by a doppelganger, so different are his actions as Prime Minister to his words before taking on the role.
As we bounce from one outsourcing disaster to the next, it is worth reflecting on what Turnbull himself had to say on outsourcing three months before he staged his coup to take the top job.
“There has been a practice for government to outsource what should be the legitimate work of the public service to consultants. So the public service departments just become, you know, mail boxes for sending out tenders and then receiving the reports and paying for them.
What we have to do in government in my view is stop panning public servants and do more to ensure that they do their job better. And one of the ways to do that is to make sure they do the work that is their core responsibility, as opposed to outsourcing everything.
Of course, that will show up people who aren’t any good too: clearly it’s a lot easier just to send out a brief to McKinsey than it is to actually do the work yourself.
There’s no single answer to this but managing a talented workforce is very, very hard. You’re in the talent business.
The talent is the real asset of the Australian Public Service, so we have got to have a focus on the APS, a respect for the quality and seek to promote and improve the quality of that workforce all the time.
Most people work for the public service as much for the psychic wage as they do for the financial wage. Most of the very smart people in the APS could earn a lot more money somewhere else. One of the things we’ve got to do is respect the public service – respect it, expect more from it, and make sure that it has more challenging and interesting work to do.”
Others have expressed a similar view.
Former head of Turnbull’s Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler expressed his view in an article on The Mandarin last month.
Over the last 40 years, as we’ve outsourced technology, there’s been a progressive deskilling of the public service. The reliance on consultants is remarkable and the amount spent on them is eye watering. That’s just not necessary if we re-skill the public service.
Former head of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks agrees.
He warned former PM Kevin Rudd that the bureaucracy no longer had the expertise to provide the evidence-based policy advice the prime minister was demanding.
Banks bemoaned the decline in the number of public servants with the necessary quantitative and analytical skills. He also warned about the varied quality and motives of the consultants involved in developing policy.
While there were highly professional consultancies, he said, there were also consultants who cut corners, provided superficial reports and second-guessed what ministers wanted to hear. Consultants had different motives to professional public servants, for obvious reasons.
Banks made an interesting suggestion – that consultants’ work be subjected to peer review – but that would require the government to actually release the reports that we pay for, something that is becoming increasingly uncommon. How often do we hear the call “This is a report to government, not by government,” thus abrogating responsibility and accountability – the buck stops nowhere.
I would go further and suggest that any government contracts actually contain penalties for failure to deliver rather than profit protection for the other party as is so often the case.
The job of a Minister used to be to oversee the efficient and effective delivery of the government services but this has changed as Richard Denniss points out.
“the neoliberal obsession with privatising and outsourcing the actual delivery of services to the private sector, combined with enormous growth in the number of taxpayer-funded “personal staff” in ministerial offices, has fundamentally changed the role of minister. Rather than focus on the enormous, if often tedious, job of managing the delivery of essential services, the modern minister is often more interested in “shaking things up”. While identifying room for improvement is part of the job, announcing grand plans to drive future efficiency is no substitute for delivering actual efficiency.
Decades of “efficiency dividends” and other euphemisms for public sector cuts have fundamentally eroded the ability of agencies to deliver basic services. Once upon a time a minister would have raged against the suggestion that cutting their department’s funding would help them “improve efficiency”, but once upon a time ministers would have thought they would be held responsible for failures on their watch. Those days seem long gone. The modern minister embraces the “opportunity” that comes with shedding staff.
For decades we have been told that outsourcing and privatisation would lead to efficiencies that would mean we have more money to provide more services. And for decades we have been told that we need to grow the economy before we can “afford” to treat the elderly with dignity and the disabled with respect. Well, GDP had doubled in the last 20 years and we have outsourced and privatised more thoroughly than most countries … so when will the quality of our public services start to improve?”
We have lost an enormous amount of expertise and experience from the public service who can no longer feel free to give frank and fearless advice and do not have the long term memory of tried and failed experiments. Advice now comes from politicians’ personal staff, their spin team, and their tame consultants who produce reports with the required outcome – for a hefty fee.
Instead of having people who are intimately aware of the services they deliver designing processes, we pay a fortune to private companies who far too often fall short of their promises.
We are all now paying the price for the short-sightedness of decimating the public service for ‘budget repair’ and to avoid being told uncomfortable truths.