Barriers to public sector reform are formidable

Anne Tiernan, Griffith University, pictured head and shoulders behind a lectern mic.
Associate Professor Anne Tiernan, Centre for Governance and Public Policy.

Public sector reform is the platform on which Australia’s economic competitiveness can be maintained in the wake of the resources boom, but only if inherent political barriers can be overcome.

This was the message of political scientist, Associate Professor Anne Tiernan from Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, in her address to CEDA‘s Economic and Political Overview forum in Perth today (Wed).

Associate Professor Tiernan said “primarily political” barriers were affecting the capacity of the nation’s political processes and institutions to embrace and sustain policy reform, thereby impacting potential for innovation.

“There are formidable barriers to the successful implementation of reforms that would yield genuine improvements in the efficiency and performance of Australia’s public sector,” she said.

“Because delivery systems are mixed, the reform task is infinitely more complex than what can be realised through arbitrary cuts to the public service.”

CEDA’s Economic and Political Overview incorporates a premier publication and series of briefings on the Australian economy and politics for the year ahead. CEDA hosts a series of EPO forums across states and territories in February and March with presentations by political, economic and business leaders.

The keynote speakers at this week’s Perth forum were Mike Smith, CEO, ANZ and Hon. Troy Buswell, WA State Treasurer.

Associate Professor Tiernan focused on issues of productivity and international competitiveness now at the forefront of contemporary policy debate as Australia adjusts in the wake of the resources boom.

“Declining productivity growth is characterised as being, at best, problematic and, at worst, a national crisis that analysts attribute to a lack of political leadership and a failure to embrace the kinds of policy reforms that positioned the nation for two decades of growth and prosperity.”

In her chapter for the publication Associate Professor Tiernan outlines reforms to public service delivery being pursued across Australian jurisdictions, and highlights key dilemmas to be confronted in the debate about strategies to enhance the productivity of government.

These include what are best measures of productivity, given the inherent differences between the public and private sectors.

She argues for new governments to consider the potential of micro-level reforms to yield desired improvements in the quality and efficiency of public sector service provision. “Large-scale system reforms can be a net cost to performance in complex delivery systems because they create significant uncertainty and erode institutional memory”.

“Frequent, disruptive organisational change and policy instability undermine the capacity for efficiency and innovation in public sector delivery networks.”

She explored how best to foster competition, diversity and choice in the delivery of public services.

“Successful implementation of such reforms will require a change in the attitudes and habits of Australia’s ‘policy class’, particularly at federal level.”