Former Obama White House official says Australian public service facing 'creeping crisis'

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Charles Eshelman/Getty Images

Beth Noveck, who was the director of the open government initiative in the Obama White House, wants to talk about trust, and about listening. The New York-based academic tells Guardian Australia’s politics podcast that officialdom – the bureaucracy standing behind elected governments – needs to evolve because, around the world, citizens fear governments are becoming incapable of solving big policy challenges and that failure of trust is corrosive.

“Government is not only not effective enough, it’s not legitimate enough,” Noveck says. She is not so worried about garden variety complaints and abstract whingeing about government being hopeless; what she’s worried about is “the crisis of democracy … that we have declining rates of trust in our democratic systems”.

“We need to focus on that, first and foremost.”

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Noveck says creating a more responsive, conversational officialdom, capable of using technology and data to solve policy challenges – from bringing down high murder rates to grappling with curbing greenhouse gas emissions – is one of the ways of narrowing the trust deficit between governments and the people they represent.

“It’s really about creating more conversational bureaucracy, more conversational democracy.”

Noveck is in Australia to launch new research she has undertaken as director of the NYU Governance Lab with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute on behalf of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. The paper she has co-authored with Monash University’s Rod Glover – a former senior public servant and prime ministerial adviser – warns the Australian public service faces a “creeping crisis” of effectiveness and legitimacy.

The research, which has been published amid a post-election debate about the effectiveness of the public service triggered by Scott Morrison, who has foreshadowed “congestion busting” in the bureaucracy, involved a survey of Australian public servants which the authors claim to be a world first. The survey identified that only 40% of respondents believe that senior management is willing to take risks to support new ideas, and there is also resistance at the senior management level.

The research indicates Australian public servants are eager to embrace skills for innovation but receive inadequate training in them. Many public servants are aware that technology has created new ways of approaching problems, but their knowledge is abstract. The new methodologies are not part of their daily practice.

Those factors, combined with blunt public-sector management tools, including hiring freezes, efficiency dividends and “funding cuts that hobble innovative or experimental initiatives”, are creating what survey respondents characterised as a creeping crisis for the public sector.

Glover says the results of the research beg a question – who will step up and take responsibility for transitioning the public sector from the work practices of the past to the challenges of the future? “I think there’s a huge leadership task at the top of the public sector, and how they behave sends signals and cues, it ripples all the way down the public service,” he says.

Morrison’s early comments about public-sector reform have centred on the bureaucracy being better geared to implementing the agenda of the government. But Glover says the current challenge is more broad ranging.

He says the public-sector faces a crisis of confidence that is “not that different to the crisis of confidence facing the political class, and the collective inability of our institutions to solve difficult problems in a way that is not only effective, but trusted”. He says public-sector leaders have a role in shaping culture, and in sending a signal that it is OK to innovate and try new approaches.

Noveck says common in bureaucracies around the world is a “fear of failure” that manifests in unwillingness to take calculated risks. “When you take that into a hyperpartisan environment, and a media that is eager to write the gotcha headlines, that’s eager to point out the failures … people are really afraid to stick their necks out. That is one fundamental cultural problem that pervades government worldwide.

“But there is also a capacity gap. Many of these new ways of working and innovating are, frankly, not taught to people in university, they are not taught to people in their jobs now, so the ability to think about, for example, how do I use data to better understand and define the problem I am trying to solve, how do I go out into the community and actually talk to the people who are experiencing the problem to understand their experiences, but also talk to them to look for good ideas and solutions as opposed to thinking I have to own the solution myself … these are new ways of working for people”.

She says investing in capacity is vital. Noveck insists public administrators in Australia and in America are not incompetent, but they are facing ever more complex demands from a disillusioned public that assumes problems must be easier to solve in the 21st century than they were in times past.

Glover says as well as building new skills and capacities, resilience and perseverance is important, both at senior levels and with the young eager beavers looking to change the world. Everyone needs to take more risks and own the consequences. “Public service leaders need to suck it up a bit,” he says.