Not enough headspace, time, or resources: why department heads are ill-equipped to deliver ongoing reform

Geoffrey Brown OAM

It’s clear that ongoing reform has to become part of the public sector’s DNA and be embedded in the
day to day activities of all federal government agencies. So why isn’t this happening?

The biggest barriers to ongoing reform are bandwidth, time and resource limitations.

Department secretaries recognise the power of ongoing reform to save time and money in the long term. The problem is that they are overwhelmed with daily operations and the mission impossible of keeping up with the demands of government, ministerial priorities and the 24-hour news cycle. It’s a bandwidth issue. They are drinking from the fire hydrant, and anything outside of this that calls for time and resource in the short term is likely to spill off the agenda.

Reform in government departments generally looks something like this… The reform either takes key staff offline, or competes for attention with their day to day duties. When cracks in these arrangements start to show pressure builds on the implementation team to wrap things up, before the reform has had a chance to take hold. The reform ends up costing a lot in time and resources and delivers a substandard or completely ineffective solution.

Given this context it is little wonder that the idea of ongoing reform can feel like a hard-sell for decision makers.

So how can agencies achieve ongoing reform amid these realities?

To start with, ongoing reform can only be achieved through the development of a culture and structure where change and evolution is seen as business as usual, rather than being driven by slow and expensive processes of review. The creation of this culture requires expertise for genesis and buy-in for success. Ideally, ongoing reform should be supported by a dedicated in-house team to eliminate the need to pull essential staff away from their core duties. But in the current business environment the focus is on cutting fixed costs, not creating them. And this team will be the first to be cut in a belt-tightening exercise or when a new government wants to reduce its footprint.

The alternative is to go external. To find a partner that can deliver the reform resources you need regularly, without becoming a fixed cost. A partner with experience running large scale organisations and government reform. A partner who can fine tune review recommendations so that they are aligned with the reality of your ecosystem and identify and manage risks and opportunities on an ongoing basis. A partner who can both design and implement, without the distraction of 20 other projects, day to day obligations, relationships and competing lines of management in the background.

Finding the right partner

In my experience the most effective way to ensure that ongoing reform is embedded and sustainable is to engage an external entity to work alongside management. Under this approach agencies can expect not just time and cost savings, but an increase in their ability to react flexibly and at speed to the demands of government.

However, reform designers are a dime a dozen. It is harder to find consultancies that are also expert in implementation, and harder still to find ones willing to dedicate senior staff to longer term projects. Most will leave junior staff to carry out the most important role, ensuring that change is cemented in.

My advice to agency decision makers is to partner with a consultant specialising in delivering reform from start to finish. This means that they can get on with doing what they do best, driving policy and recommendations to the government to help them achieve their agenda.