At a time like this, with two sleeps to go before Santa’s elves hack Alexa and get it to let Santa and his reindeer shapeshift their way through your aircon duct and into your living rooms, our minds turn to the simple things that matter. Like my proposal for an Evaluator General. Below, for your pre-Christmas delectation, is the foreword to my submission to the Thodey review. [1. It’s virtually impossible to find my submission on Thodey Review’s ‘Submissions’ page. There are over 500 of them and the only way I’ve found to get to each one is to scroll through them twenty at a time. The search function doesn’t turn up anything when I put ‘Gruen’ or ‘Lateral Economics’ into it. So the link above is to my submission in its original Google Docs form]
I am presently on an extended tour of Australian cities as the National President of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA). It’s an opportunity, in part, to discuss with officials from all jurisdictions how they imagine public service reform.
In a sense, the future is already with us. I am using the chance to highlight the many new and exciting approaches already being trialled – the utilisation of big data analytics, the embrace of behavioural psychology, the piloting of place-and community-based initiatives, enhanced cross-sectoral collaboration, the adoption of human-centred design, the collective creation of public impact, the introduction of digital democracy and the application of robotic process automation and cognitive technologies to complex but routine administrative tasks.
Change is afoot. Contrary to public perception, there is a great deal of innovation occurring at all levels and in many areas of public administration. Always, however, the audience at my talks end up debating why it is that so many of these creative improvements to our structures of democratic governance remain confined to its periphery. Too many demonstration projects, even when successful, fail to get scaled up. Pilot programs remain pilots. At the centre of public service, traditional approaches to policy implementation are rarely transformed. The existing state of affairs continues.
Perhaps, suggest some of the participants, that it reflects the inability of public servants to gain a positive authorising political environment. Perhaps, posit others, it is evidence of bureaucratic risk aversion. Perhaps there are vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo. Whatever the combination of factors, it is disheartening.
That is why this provocative discussion paper by Nicholas Gruen is so important. At the heart of the problem, he argues persuasively, is the lowly status accorded to the task of evaluation and to the perspectives and knowledge of those in the field and those they serve. That has detrimental consequences. We need to know where governments can invest public funds in order to best achieve the outcomes they seek.
That assessment needs to integrate systematic with contextual knowledge. In my own words, commitment to evidence-based advice needs to be informed by the pragmatic, real-world experience of front-line staff and by the citizens who access the services provided.
Gruen argues that the single best way to enhance the monitoring, appraisal and reporting of the delivery of government policy is to raise its profile, influence, authority and independence. To that end, he contends that there would be significant advantage in establishing in Australian public services the role of an independent Evaluator-General alongside the existing Auditor-General. I think he’s right.
Gruen emphasises that his proposals would raise the status of evaluators and their work (and, I believe, would also enhance the professional standing of the Project and Risk managers upon whom effective execution of government policy depends). Yet, to be successful, officers of the Evaluator-General embedded within agencies would also need to be ‘critical and expert friends’ of those delivering services, especially those in the field. They would not be top-down enforcers and regulators.
A critical aspect of Gruen’s proposal is that the Evaluator General would be in a position to independently compare the efficiency and effectiveness of different programs and approaches, whether undertaken by public servants or by contracted outside providers. This would help move public debate from its present preoccupation with government expenditure to a greater emphasis on measuring the financial and social returns on government investment.
Finally, Gruen proposes – in line with his long-standing advocacy for making publicly collected data available to the public – that, by making its independent monitoring and evaluation transparent to the public, an Evaluator-General could create a ‘knowledge commons’ of assessment methodologies and outcomes. Better practice would be shared across government agencies and service providers. Public understanding of performance-based outcomes (and the metrics necessary to measure them appropriately) would be enhanced. Critically, new programs and approaches can be assessed on a ‘level playing field’ with the incumbent ones that have proven so difficult to dislodge. The transparency of evaluation results would help build public support for difficult decisions where they are necessary.
I commend this paper by Nicholas Gruen. Its line of reasoning is convincing. Understanding that the quality of government policy can only be assessed by the manner in which it is delivered, it makes a bold but practical proposal on how to improve that process over time. I hope that his arguments are widely read, discussed … and implemented.
Professor Peter Shergold
Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008
5th August 2018