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Thursday, February 23, 2012

NSW public sector not a pretty picture

Open transparent government and specific observations about the administration of the laws, and policies, procedures and the agency culture needed to deliver it do not feature in the NSW Commission of Audit- Interim Report on Public Management released yesterday. Although the commission did find that "(i)nformation systems are complex and cumbersome and often non-existent" and identified "a culture of risk aversion, insularity, adherence to procedure and powerlessness, even defeatism.." The SMH take is here.

It's noteworthy that the report was released bearing the "Cabinet in Confidence" tag at the foot of every page, so a big tick for the Premier and Treasurer on that score, in marked contrast to the hands off approach taken with the initial (non) release of the incoming government briefs (Blue books) last year. 

The structural complexity as a result of agency amalgamations sounds like a nightmare for those with agency wide responsibilities such as information access and privacy. To which these extracts from the introduction and conclusion also apply.

From the Introduction
The NSW Government has set out five strategies for NSW. These are to: rebuild the economy, return quality services, renovate infrastructure, strengthen our local environment and communities and restore accountability to Government.The issue is, given what has been inherited, can the Government deliver on these five strategies? Or to be positive, what needs to change to ensure that these strategies can be delivered? In this Interim Report, the Commission of Audit examines public sector management. It is not good news. The Commission has seen pockets of good practice in the NSW public sector, but generally managerial performance is far from excellent. This will hinder the achievement of the Government‟s five strategies. Capabilities need improving and the Commission is surprised at the low importance that has been attached to financial, people and asset management. Information systems are complex and cumbersome and often non-existent.

From the Conclusion
The problems this report has uncovered are systemic. While on the surface, processes and systems look functional, in practice, they are often only observed on paper and their intention is ignored. The Commission has been surprised at how consistently basic management practices have not been implemented.
These basic management issues need to be tackled now. The time has come to stop commissioning reports from consultants. Reform must begin. To fix the issues will take time and resources. The problems have developed over years, and a four or five year period is needed to remedy the situation.
The Government will be assisted in this task by the goodwill and talent of the public service's leaders and its employees. In the past, many dedicated people have worked to deliver services by navigating through and around cumbersome structures and unnecessary barriers. They have made do with poor data, unclear reporting lines and ineffective systems. They are, in general, keen to be part of the solution. In particular, Directors General and CEOs will welcome the new imperative to fix these problems.
It is important to recognise that the problems are not only with systems and processes. They also stem from a culture of risk aversion, insularity, adherence to procedure and powerlessness, even defeatism that has built up over time. The Government has made the right start by legislating a set of values – integrity, trust, service and accountability – and emphasising the value of the public service. Now what are needed are consistent messages that the Government is serious about this; and then a continued effort to give public sector workers the tools they need and to remove the barriers in their way.

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