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Reform as an adventure

November 25, 2014 •

Let’s look for adventure in unlikely places.

On 1 July 2015, public accountability arrangements across the Australian government shifted to the paradigm set out in the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.

Implementation of the Act was planned to be deliberate and consultative. The implementation vehicle is the public management reform agenda, led from within the Department of Finance.

The Act is an outcome of a review of the way the Australian government does business that commenced in 2010. It reflects considered views about how governments need to adapt to the era of change that began with the 2008 global financial crisis.

The drivers for reform are likely to both persist and increase in force

In this era change is not a constant. It is accelerating. Let’s face the facts. The number of people on the planet has tripled since World War II. Many of the effects of unprecedented human population levels are multiplied by economic and technological changes.

We have become at least an order of magnitude more connected physically by global supply chains in the past forty years. In the past two decades, internet connections increased from ~50,000 to ~3,500,000,000: that’s many more orders of magnitude. The growth of the internet of things (IoT) means that we are increasingly engaged physically with physical systems that reflect global technologies woven together digitally.

The issues related to interactions between rapidly-changing human systems and natural systems are very contentious politically. I think it’s fair to say parties with legitimate interests in these issues can mobilise to turn elected governments out of office; and, these parties may have interests that extend beyond national boundaries.

Economic globalisation and the disintermediation of people-to-people interactions via the internet have eroded the capacity of national institutions to control national economies, social and political agendas; or, silence views they regard as subversive. (Of course, the government of the Peoples Republic of China remains committed to taking on all these challenges.)

The workforce implications of boomer retirements and the health and care costs of unprecedented numbers of people over 70 present considerable public policy challenges in many economies. Paradoxically, one related policy challenge common around the world is finding better ways to leverage greater social diversity.

Many advanced economies with declining birth rates accept ‘economic migrants’ into their workforces, often in jobs native-born citizens don’t want — including carrying for the aged. Of course, the most valuable economic migrants bring good educations and good physical and mental health.

This points to one of the direst emerging issues for global security architecture. Human population growth is slowing, but in an asymmetric way: declines in birth rates in advanced economies are offset by high birth rates in places beset by conflict, poverty and poor or non-existent health care and education.

This reality generates tens of millions of displaced people, including many millions of children who are missing out on education and basic health care. We of the first world seem less able than we once were to see how our interests are served by finding ways we can afford to make things better for people living in the worst places on earth.

Electorates in many of the developed economies are unsettled. Their expectations that things will get better for good people like themselves are not being met. We could expect to see the politics of stranger-danger emerge from this kind of disappointment; and we have not been disappointed. In a moment where no-fault analyses of complex issues might be most useful, blame games that save us the pain of thought seem to have the greatest currency.

Coherent, long-term policies to manage the economic, social and environmental effects of large human and natural systems changes will be neither simple nor cheap. Elected governments are in uncharted territory and facing complex pressures and uncertainties that are hard to discuss without risking early political retirement.

Some political leaders trying to persuade electorates to pay for more government to make and implement long-term, globally relevant policies are feeling some love; but they also attract the fury of folks persuaded that government itself is a self-serving vested interest that they cannot trust.

Around the world we have seen many governments embark on public sector reformthat reflect a considered view about put their own houses in order, earn trust, and create a new, more productive set of relationships between government and civil society.

We can read the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 in that light. The expressed goal is non-trivial: to change the ways that some 300,000 people working in nearly 180 Commonwealth ‘entities’ behave as they plan, budget, implement, evaluate and are held accountable for delivering public policy outcomes.

The public management reform agenda has obvious linkages to digital transformation of government business, even if the rhetoric of the Digital Transformation Office is … well, snappier. Neat crips like ‘simpler, clearer, faster, more humane public services’ on the DTO site can inspire nostalgia for earlier, more ruminatory styles, like this mildly self-deprecating observation in the PGPA Act explanatory memorandum:

‘… legislation is only a first step towards greater cultural change to embrace risk management as a way to foster improved productivity and innovation in the Commonwealth public sector.’

One thing is fairly certain. In the early 21st century, we’re all going to need to learn to be a little friendlier towards contradictions and inconsistencies if we’re going to learn how to change ourselves and the ways we work together fast enough to be relevant in a world that is changing faster and at much higher levels of complexity than any of us can think or respond as individuals.

It’s a time for new kinds of interdependency. Let’s work on it. There is a glut of no-brainer solutions that may make things worse. We need to learn together how to make the best out of things that are happening all around us, and that we have not yet found constructive ways to discuss.