Tanner James Blog

It is time for public sector governance to change

John Howarth


I’ll cut straight to the point here:  the way Federal government departments and agencies implement policy and reform isn’t good enough.  Well-intentioned public servants operating in entrenched bureaucratic structures and traditional ways of working is failing the taxpayer.  It is high time we had a serious crack at doing things differently.

Does the APS need to change?

Of course it does.  The last couple of decades are littered with reports that spell out exactly why, and how, the APS needs to change – the Gershon Review, “Ahead of the Game”, the Shergold Report, etc.  And another review is about to kick-off as we speak:  announced earlier this month, it is the APS review.  Quoting from an open letter to the Australian Public Service sent by the 20 members of the Secretaries Board:

“The terms of reference set out the Prime Minister’s expectations that the APS should: 

  • drive innovation and productivity in the economy;
  • deliver high quality policy advice, regulatory oversight, programs and services;
  • tackle complex challenges in collaboration with the community, business and citizens;
  • ensure our domestic, foreign, trade and security interests are coordinated and well managed;
  • improve citizens’ experience of government and deliver fair outcomes for them; and
  • acquire and maintain the necessary skills and expertise to fulfil its responsibilities.

The review will be led by a panel of experts with experience in the public and private sectors, in academia, in Australia and overseas. The panel Chair, Mr David Thodey AO, is a former Chief Executive Officer of Telstra and current Chairman of the CSIRO. Importantly, he is also an external member of the Secretaries APS Reform Committee, which has stewardship of a range of significant more immediate public sector reforms already underway.”

At the risk of offending all 20 secretaries, Mr Thodey and his panel, I’ll call it now:  the review will be full of eminently sensible suggestions which will be studiously ignored.  Because that’s what the APS does with these reviews: pay them lip service, but fail on the implementation piece.  I can hear the howls of protest and righteous indignation:  that’s okay, talk to me in a few years and we’ll see what has happened as a result of the APS review.

How should the APS change?

I will leave the full answer to Mr Thodey and his panel, but I do hold a strong opinion in one area; governance.  To be more specific, governance structures.

Every single department and agency operates based upon a hierarchy of Groups, Divisions, Branches, Directorates, Sections, headed by a matching hierarchy of public service ranks – DEPSEC, SES2, SES1, EL2, EL1.  And it is these structures that dominate operation of the public service – the way directions are given, the way things are approved, and the way money and resources flow.

Working this way is perfect – if you are doing more or less the same things year in, year out.  Working this way falls apart when it comes to implementing new policies and major reforms – i.e. managing change.  And the bigger and uglier the change, the more these permanent structures show their inherent failings.

You only need to consider just one aspect of APS change to see the glaring problem:  if a department or agency has to close itself down, make major changes to what it does, or better still is yet to be invented, the permanent structures inherently can’t work.  Which organisation is ever going to willingly self-destruct?  How can an organisation that hasn’t yet been established manage the establishment of itself?

From time to time PM&C, and occasionally the odd department or agency will have a rush of blood to the head and establish a “taskforce” to fix the issue.  As an organisational construct a taskforce will beat a permanent structure every time, so the thinking is on the right track.  But guess what?  Inevitably it’ll be staffed by a tried and trusted hierarchy of DEPSEC, SES2, SES1, EL2, EL1.

What’s the answer?

Establish role-based governance structures – programme and projects – that are not a part of, or beholden to, permanent structures.  That don’t sit “in” a Group, Division or Branch, and perhaps not even in any one department or agency.  Whole of Government Reform anyone?

Make these programme and project structures dominate implementation of new policy and reform in the public service – the way directions are given, the way things are approved, and the way money and resources flow.  Fund them directly through the budget process, instead of funding permanent structures who then have to beg, steal and borrow to fund programmes and projects.

Appoint public servants to roles – SRO, Project Sponsor, Scrum Master etc, and make them accountable.  And cut-out the full hierarchy of levels for the sake of levels – for example have SES1’s who report directly to DEPSECs, have EL2s who report directly to SES2s.  Which, just quietly, will double the management capacity of the APS to deliver change overnight.

Good luck Mr Thodey, I truly hope that you will be a catalyst for change in a sector that appears happy to have ignored the advice of Sir Peter Gershon and Professor Peter Shergold.

What do you think?

Please comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

Feel free to call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at


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