After #CensusFail: Is Australia’s public service up to the job?

September 16 / 186

The recent #CensusFail, where millions of Australians were unable to enter their details to the Census website, is the starting point for the latest edition of The Policy Shop – a monthly podcast about public policy and the way it affects Australia and the world, hosted by Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis.

This episode explores the performance of the Australian public service, examining the wider external and internal pressures it faces.

Former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran told the VC he didn’t blame the “poor people at the ABS.”

“I blame successive governments which have denied investment in the ABS and also, in this case, the foolishness of outsourcing so much of the collection task to the private sector without equipping the ABS to be as strong and informed a client of those companies as it needed to be in the very complex area of IT.”

Melbourne School of Government’s Professor Helen Sullivan didn’t agree that the ABS was not somehow culpable.

“Governments have been contracting for years,” she said. “This isn’t something new. We have lots and lots of experience of contracting. It’s not good enough to say it’s because the ABS did not have enough staff or were not trained. This is something that is core to how Governments operate.”

Mr Moran shared his insight into the structure of the federal public service, comparing it unfavourably with counterparts in the states and territories.

“I would argue that the public service in Canberra is essentially made up of two tribes: the economists and the generalists. The economists are hoping to relive the glory days of 1980s macro and micro economic reform and the debates which preceded it.” 

“The generalists are skilled at feeding the beast in Parliament House, rather than equipped with the management skills of all sorts, not just IT and outsourcing, but also many other areas required to run complex service delivery. So when a public servant in a social policy department in Canberra looks out on the big service delivery systems operated by the states and territories, they are uncomprehending of what is involved. They are simply not up to date on where contemporary public service management has got to,” he said.

Hear more on this topic by listening to the full podcast. 

Subscribe to The Policy Shop on iTunes or stream on Pursuit. 

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