The machinery of government, a delicate balance between cost efficiency and citizens’ needs
Forty one Western Australian government agencies will be collapsed into just 25 on 1 July when the Machinery of Government (MOG) changes come into effect, exceeding an election promise to reduce the number of agencies by 20 percent.
This structural reform is intended to save money in a state where public sector wages are currently funded by borrowings. It is also calculated to reassure the community the new Labor Government can achieve public sector reform despite the apparent closeness of the relationship between the party and unions.
Citizens don’t care much for machinery of government or what department they are dealing with. Their focus is getting their needs met, whether it’s renewing a licence or seeking support and shelter when out of work and homeless. And having informed one department of the death of a relative, they can’t understand why another sends a bill to that loved one months later.
The timetable for the implementation of the change has been ambitious. Government agencies are not just bureaucracies. In many cases they are delivery mechanisms for vital and complex community services. Reducing head-count, reforming org charts and co-locating employees will meet the objective of saving money in the short term, but won’t necessarily deliver improved services.
Combining agencies into large super departments should help, in theory. However, ensuring the proper integration of processes, systems and workplace practices to avoid dysfunction and inefficiency is painstaking work that won’t happen without a specific change management focus.
Too often change management is assumed to be a combination of communications, logo change and leadership shuffling. There are useful guides published by the Australian Public Services Commission. These are a useful start. However, following a recipe does not always give you the best end product. There are many factors to consider to ensure the soufflé rises.
This MOG change is one of the most significant in Western Australian history and will require a rigorous approach to change management to avoid any reduction of service delivery or productivity. Leadership must engage with their people to clearly articulate the benefits and potential pitfalls, outline what is changing and what this means to their employees. Organisational reshaping needs to drive clear lines of accountability and decision making avoiding duplication of effort and confusion. Most importantly this change must build the confidence in public service staff; that they know what they are doing, who they report to and that service delivery to the Western Australian community is not disrupted.
No matter how few mega agencies are created, there will always be service value chains that extend across departmental silos. Creating citizen-centric interconnected services across government (and NGO delivery partners) will continue to be a challenge despite these initial structural reforms. And the value of these connections may well be the way the public judges its success.
Creating a culture of service innovation and continuous improvement will require a concerted effort led from the centre of government. The New Zealand Government, for example, has achieved a focus on the same small list of carefully chosen high-level outcomes targets for the past five years. This has driven accountability for long term results despite the daily distraction of politics.
The Western Australian Government should be commended for embarking on a program of significant public sector reform. However, July 1 should sensibly be seen as a first step in an ongoing process of change for the better.
Read more: The changing nature of work.