Stone the crows! Have fat cats no friends?

The Illawarra Mercury summed up much of the coverage of the Commission of Audit in an editorial, which did not let reason get in the way of a rant. “(The) report is the work of fat cats in lofty places far removed from the struggles and worries of ordinary Australians. Under the recommendations, nearly everyone suffers – everyone, that is, except the fat cats who crafted it and their cronies.”[i]

Um, not the supposed fat cats of the Australian Public Service, because the CoA is scathing in its assessment of its leadership – commissioners Peter Boxall and Tony Cole are former felines, and they should know. Mr Boxall understands administration and its interface with politics, having run departments and Peter Costello’s ministerial office.[ii] Mr Cole is a previous deputy secretary of PMC and Treasury.[iii]

The Crows aren’t surprised that the CoA’s assessment of how we are governed was ignored among the reflexive ranting that passed for reporting and analysis, in much of the professional and social media both. Reporting on rationalising resources and reporting lines does not rate as rabid rhetoric and, apart from the poor devils who have their work belittled and their jobs ended, public service reform is almost free money for ministers. It costs no political capital outside the service and ACT, where job losses are most keenly felt.[iv] And it makes money saved on administration available for services.

But among all the anguished interest groups complaining of cruel and unusual assessment by the CoA the top cats of the public service certainly have cause to caterwaul.

That the Commission proposes abolishing/amalgamating/assessing 482 government agencies is no reflection on the service. One way or another, they are all creations and creatures of the executive. [v]

And the Commissioners acknowledge the 250,000 workers in the public service and Commonwealth general government sector are competent – “by international standards, Australia has a relatively efficient and responsive public sector.”[vi]

But not as competent as it could and should be: “During consultations stakeholders suggested to the Commission that public service performance is uneven and expressed concerns about the quality of leadership and management.”[vii]

And this is where the fat cats get scalded. According to the Commission, the problem starts at the top and, accordingly, it advocates transferring the public service commissioner’s responsibilities to the secretary of the Department of Employment and allocating some the Commission’s functions to a range of agencies.[viii]

The Commission also suggests the public sector could tighten spending on corporate services, that if agencies spending above the median reduced to the service-wide figure there would be a $1bn saving.[ix] And it found that the public service agencies spend $4700 per head annually on human service functions, twice that of comparable private sector organisations and totalling $980m [x]across surveyed agencies: “This suggests that there may therefore be significant opportunity to lower annual expenditure on human resources.” Understated sorts of citizens, the commissioners.

They also detail all sorts of areas where the service can improve outcomes. For example, the Commission estimates the Commonwealth has a $20bn property portfolio and leases 600 office spaces. As neither property management nor leasing is a core public service expertise, the CoA urges government to sell property and retain professionals to manage its accommodation.

To encourage agencies to sell, it suggests ending the existing policy of returning sale proceeds to the budget and allowing them to keep a share.[xi] There is no detail on how much this would save, but the Crows imagine there would be a few quid in it. The same applies to reforming the way government allocates $40bn in procurement and pays for its purchases.

The Commissioners also urge the service to work out whether private providers could do a better, cheaper job of managing the government payment system, which sends out $149bn a year. The Department of Human Services is about to spend $1.5bn updating its three decade old IT so now is the time to do it.

They also point to the way government is way behind the UK in using its enormous data collections to help inform budgeting and policy. The same applies to e-government interaction with citizens, corporate services and cloud computing. While no savings are specified, the COA argues the public service has not kept pace with what technology can do to make service provision faster and cheaper. [xii]

The Crows find all this fascinating (yes I know how sad that sounds) but, whether or not you care about administration, the CoA has made the point – there is a bunch of money to be saved at the source of services.

At the moment it seems administering Australia is like, ahem, herding cats.

Stephen Matchett was retained by the Commission of Audit to work on drafting the report.

If you have a document, big or small, that needs writing/editing/researching give him a call.

0417 469093

[i] “Farewell to a fair go,” Illawarra Mercury, May 2

[ii] Paul Malone, Australian department heads under Howard: career paths and practice, (ANU Press, 2006) @ recovered on May 3

[iii] Fleur Anderson, “Hockey names Howard-era audit commissioners team,” Australian Financial Review, October 23 2013, recovered on May 3

[iv] Community and Public Service Union, “Commission of Audit puts 25,000 jobs on the line,” May 1 @ recovered on May 3

[v] National Commission of Audit (hereafter CoA) Phase II, 4.1 “Rationalising of remaining agencies, boards and committees”, @ recovered on May 3

[vi] CoA Phase II, 3.1 “Structure of the Australian Public Service,” @ recovered on May 3

[vii] CoA ibid

[viii] CoA, Recommendation six: “Role of the Australian Public Service Commissioner,” @ recovered on May 3

[ix] CoM Recommendation seven: “Public sector efficiency-improved spans of control,” @ recovered on May 3

[x] CoM ibid

[xi] COM, Phase 1, 225-226 @ recovered on May 3

[xii] COM, Phase 1 225-244 @ recovered on May 3