Here we go again…
It was March 2013. My departmental colleagues and I were crowded around the small TV in a corporate kitchen, awaiting the outcomes of what would be the last Gillard Government reshuffle. But it wasn’t just the new Ministry that interested us. We were holding our breaths for the vital small print, which would detail the corresponding Machinery of Government changes (known variously as ‘MoGs’ or Administrative Changes across Australian jurisdictions). The MoG would determine where we worked, what roles we performed and who we performed them with.
This nervous wait was becoming something of a ritual, as the carousel of Ministers sped up and the frequency of change increased. In all, there were eight such ‘MoGs’ between the 2010 and 2013 federal elections.
Sure enough, change was afoot. Along with a host of new Ministers, our department was taking on responsibility for climate change. We were now employees of the imposingly-titled Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (or DIICCSRTE for short…er).
The staff footprint would span multiple properties, five different collective agreements and many different cultures and corporate structures. Wry jokes were made about the Canberra business card industry getting another boost, although most of us had long since stopped bothering to reprint. A lady who had changed departments four times while occupying the same job simply shrugged with a bemused sigh, and walked back to her soon-to-be-changing desk.
What the MoG is going on?
The Australian Public Service (APS) has seen over 200 MoG changes in the last 20 years. Spikes in activity understandably correlate with changes in government, although the last seven years have maintained a particularly frenetic pace.
Indeed, they did not slow after Labor lost power. A mega-MoG took place in September 2013 involving most departments and over 12,000 APS staff, while another in 2014 affected 900 staff.
So why is it happening?
In Australia, it appears to be increasingly the orthodoxy that any changes in Ministerial function will necessitate a corresponding departmental restructure beneath them. This is not historically a foregone conclusion – departments have often served multiple Ministers, while Ministers have also been responsible for elements of multiple departments. It is certainly not the case in comparable jurisdictions, with generally more stable arrangements in the US and UK.
Departmental name changes are also being used as a signal to constituencies that they are prioritised. The pitfalls of this approach were memorably demonstrated when my old department removed and hastily reintroduced ‘Science’ to its moniker in 2013-14 without any resultant change of responsibilities throughout the ordeal.
Cost savings are cited as a reason for consolidation, as with the recent ‘downsizing’ of WA government agencies from 41 to 25. Finally, governments argue the need to create policy synergies by collocating relevant functions. This was the justification for moving universities and vocational education from the education portfolio to industry in February 2012. And then moving universities back to education in September 2013. And then moving vocational education back in December 2014. You get the gist.
The MoG affliction tends to be visited most commonly upon portfolios straddling the fault lines of political debate. Contrast the ecumenical functions of the Treasury, largely untouched for many years, with the highly politicised and MoGed education portfolio, where fundamental roles are often questioned by incoming governments.
So is it worth the effort?
While this question hasn’t been answered categorically, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) did look into the September 2013 MoG. Admittedly, their focus was on how successfully the mechanics were carried out rather than whether the exercise was worthwhile. Among their findings:
- Savings of approximately $900 million were achieved through consolidation of functions, while costs of approximately $130 million were incurred through staffing, ICT and physical relocation.
- Impact on service delivery was minimal.
While the headlines seem neutral if not positive, the report may be missing some important metrics.
Other studies have shown that cultural clashes and low morale often follow MoGs. Aside from such striking examples as the infamous DFAT MoG with AusAID, a malaise develops when teams are repeatedly reset. For example, I distinctly remember working with colleagues for months on a coordinated Divisional stakeholder engagement approach, only for the Division to be abolished by a MoG on the morning of its launch. The constant change of processes, reporting lines and responsibilities has an enervating effect, if sustained over long periods.
While it’s true that external service delivery may not always be affected by MoGs, policy functions are regularly disrupted. MoGs create duplication and turf battles among policy teams, which often have less clearly defined boundaries than service units. This is usually resolved through months of negotiation and corporate strategy re-drafts. Given the frequency of recent MoGs, the process can still be ongoing when the next one hits. Policy outputs tend to slow during these periods, and corporate knowledge is lost as personnel are shifted. It is no doubt a contributor to reactive policy advice, as departments scramble to redefine their roles before they can regain the front foot.
Stakeholders become confused and buy out of relationships as contact points and departmental responsibilities change. An example of this occurred when the Department of Education and Training decided to peg the branding of its overseas presence (known as Australian Education International for many years) to its departmental name. Three months and two name changes later, I found myself ordering a third set of corporate promotion materials and explaining to foreign officials that we were still the ‘AEI’ office they remembered from previous interactions.
Which brings me to a final point – how many direct financial costs were not considered? I suspect that the true ANAO figure would be much higher if it included all of the corporate rebranding, website editing and wage hours devoted to associated change activities.
What’s the solution?
There is no doubt that governments need to be agile in the modern climate of rapidly evolving policy challenges. Other jurisdictions have found less disruptive methods than Australia – for instance, Canada forms Cabinet Committees to coordinate emerging issues rather than re-tooling their agencies around them.
However, I would like to humbly suggest a unique, Aussie solution. Why not look to our very own, world-class Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for inspiration?
The AEC has an admirable approach to re-districting federal electorates (which stands in contrast to the gerrymandered efforts of our American cousins). The process to conduct such a ‘redistribution’ has these important elements:
- A defined period of seven years between redistributions, unless certain preconditions exist;
- An independent panel to oversee the process;
- An opportunity for submissions from the public and interested stakeholders (including political parties), where they can outline their preferred options;
- A proposal published for further feedback and objections; and
- A final determination.
What if we gave a similar responsibility to the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC)? Every seven (or even ten) years, the APSC could undertake an independent consultation process with affected stakeholders, to evaluate the current division of Commonwealth departmental responsibilities. Community groups, individuals, businesses and political organisations could all have their say, followed by a transparent exposure draft and final outcome. The process could be replicated by State and Territory equivalents of the APSC, covering all Australian jurisdictions.
Such a process would allow departmental structures to bed down and corporate roles to be established. Departments would find other ways of coming together around new challenges, but this time from a position of strength and confidence in their own functions. Relationships between the public service and its stakeholders would deepen. No more business cards would be reprinted. Machine guns would be beat into plowshares.
This would create added ‘red tape’ and constrain the ability of machinery to be changed quickly, but such outcomes may be beneficial. When faced with a higher threshold for structural change, governments may turn to alternative and more efficient solutions.