Capacity of government to deliver in times of uncertainty

- May 2021

The federal budget delivered new spending commitments across a wide range of portfolios – health, aged care, childcare, infrastructure just to name a few. While most of the focus has been on the reforms and huge amount of spending, it’s worth looking at the challenge of delivering those programs.

We’re living in a time of uncertainty. The pandemic is still raging around the world. There are challenges around the vaccination rollout and travel restrictions, and Australia is dealing with rising trade and national security challenges. The last 12 months has brought many twists and turns and the next year is likely to bring more, each requiring a rapid response from government. It means pressure for the government to build and deploy capability and be highly responsive.

The public service

The public service was given a boost in the budget, with over 5000 extra positions funded. It comes after many years of staffing caps and efficiency dividends, and at a time when not only ‘more hands’ are needed, but high levels of capability and agility in the workforce.

There have recently been some good examples of public service agility, like the response to the global pandemic where thousands of public servants were quickly redeployed, either within their own department or across agencies, to deliver services to the Australian community. That willingness to move quickly has continued with several thousand APS staff registering for the ‘surge reserve’ and rapid redeployment if required in the future.

Some agencies are adept at planning, with good systems and the capacity to ramp up quickly in response to new challenges and provide good decision support to ministers. However, others appear reactive – slow to act, and when they do, it’s disjointed which can cause loss of confidence by the government and public.

For all its good intent and good work, the APS is not currently at a point where capacity planning, long-term capability building and real agility is baked into the system across government. And with more staff coming into the system, the challenge will be to build it quickly in such uncertain times.

The private sector

The private sector is often used as an ‘extra set of hands’ where surge capacity is required. But simply throwing people at the problem, whether consultants or contractors, may not deliver long-term outcomes without good planning systems and the right skills and leadership attributes embedded throughout the system.

So there is a strong case for the more strategic use of private sector consultancies to help plan and fast track programs of work, all the while helping to build departmental capability over time. There are successful examples of this across government, but this approach can also be contentious – the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has recently been under the spotlight through Senate estimates and media reports for their use of a management consultancy to undertake a review of APS hierarchy and improve APS expertise and resources.

So in some respects it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

For-Purpose sector (NFPs)

Commonly referred to as not-for-profits, organisations in the For-Purpose sector often have deep expertise, a strong service delivery focus and importantly, a close connection to the community they serve – all positive attributes that could be activated to help government ramp up major service reforms.

However, funding for organisations in the For-Purpose sector has traditionally been patchy and short-term, making it difficult for them to plan with any degree of certainty. Furthermore, while services provided by this sector are often in high demand, wages remain low in a market where real wages remain stagnant, at best, for the foreseeable future.

With considerable additional funding being allocated to aged care and early childhood services, many organisations within the For-Purpose sector will be faced with challenges in recruiting and retaining a suitable workforce to meet new targets of service delivery. Low wages and minimal administrative resourcing will continue to be ongoing challenges within these high-demand and high-profile services.

While additional money committed to these vital services is a positive, there are ongoing challenges in addressing systemic change, particularly in the Aged Care sector. So is it time for government to look at this sector differently, better recognising the role organisations can play in delivering for the community on behalf of government, especially when rapid response is needed? If so, just as with the public sector, capacity won’t simply appear at the point when a new challenge or crisis emerges but must be built methodically over time. So government would need a longer term view of the sector, with changes to funding models and support for organisations to improve in areas like governance and capacity planning.

Striking the balance

The extra spending in the federal budget has been widely welcomed, but with the funding increase also comes an increase in community expectations for the government to just get on and deliver.

The ability for government to do this, and respond quickly if things change, demands good strategic planning, long term capacity and capability building and better integration of all available resources. That means a strong and highly capable public service, together with strategic use and close cooperation with the private and For Purpose sectors.

It’s a balancing act.


Image by Tumisu via Pixabay