Effective government a higher priority for regional Australia than decentralisation
New calls for moving public servants out of Canberra to benefit regional areas are worthy of consideration but a deeper and more important issue is how the APS works for regional Australia, not where it works.
Amid renewed public calls for the decentralisation of public services from Canberra, it is timely to consider how well the Australian Public Service is able to understand and respond to the diverse needs and opportunities for regional areas.
To date, discussion has focused on getting agencies out of Canberra. While simply moving agencies out of Canberra is attractive to some and plays well in the media, the real challenge to be faced is how the public service can more effectively deliver regional policy solutions. At present there are many challenges.
Challenges for more effective government on regional issues
First among these challenges is that regional issues are not generally seen as a legitimate policy interest for public servants. A history of politically motivated programs and social engineering indulgences has tarnished the view of the role government can play. Such a view misses the opportunities that should be available through effective regional policy – this includes more effective and efficient services, better devolution of responsibility and accountability for outcomes in local areas, more diverse and sustainable economic growth and a more resilient, equal society.
The current public service structure is also a challenge as it does not lend itself to good regional analysis and decision making. Regional issues cut across all of the major portfolios and service delivery agencies, requiring better coordination and integration of policy and interventions. For example, in small communities, health, education and social service delivery is more effective if it is integrated.
Developing bespoke solutions for different regions is a whole of government challenge and while we talk of joined up government we do not really have the tools and systems in place to make this a reality.
To truly achieve this joined up government outcome, those in the APS tasked with managing regional issues need a more central role in policy and service delivery. The current approach of placing regional issues in a separate Department, or in a Division of a larger Department, does not support this level of influence.
The consideration of regional issues by Cabinet also needs strengthening. The current system of mandatory Regional Impact Statements does not contain the quality of analysis needed to provide a serious assessment of regional issues in major policy decision making.
The most fundamental challenge for effective regional policy is dealing with complexity – something that APS does reasonably well for many issues. However, the public service does not really possess the tools or information to properly consider regional issues in decision making and policy implementation. This kind of assessment requires an understanding of regions that is not readily available to the centralised bureaucracy. It also necessitates a place-based approach that accepts and responds to different contexts in different part of the country.
The complexity of our governance approach is also a fundamental challenge. Because of the size of the APS and the diversity of initiatives, the complexity of issues and interventions that exist in any region confounds good decision making.
Need for more sophisticated decentralisation thinking
If there is a case for greater decentralisation then it should be built on improving the function and effectiveness of the APS in meeting the needs and challenges of regional communities.
Logically, decentralisation will distribute some direct economic benefits and provide opportunities for people who will never live in Canberra to contribute to the public service.
However, these direct benefits from decentralisation are limited given that most regional areas would not receive an agency presence. The potential benefits from more effective regional policy and service should far outweigh these direct benefits.
To put this in perspective, out of an annual $370+ billion Commonwealth budget in 2011-12 only $22 billion of spending is attributed to the national government in the ACT’s state accounts. Assuming that around 20% of this might be relocated to regional areas in a substantial decentralisation program, $4 billion doesn’t really touch the sides when compared to the tens of billions spent annually in social security, health, education and housing in regional areas, let alone the potential for new private and non-government sector benefits that might be derived from regionally informed regulation and policy making.
The risk always in looking at regional issues is that we jump to a simple solution – pick up the public servants and shift them to the bush! But we need to look harder than this and not lose sight of the tougher challenges the Australian Public Service faces in supporting future regional prosperity.
The Regional Australia Institute is working to support a shift in how the APS sees regional policy and considers regional issues in decision making. Through better information on regions and regional issues, new analysis of opportunities for more efficient and effective regional policy and service delivery and a more informed public discussion, the RAI will help to move regional policy and governance beyond the disappointments of the past.
RAI supports a decentralisation strategy that focuses more on improving the way in which public servants understand and work for Australia’s diverse regional communities and less on just moving them to different parts of the country.
This is the only strategy that can have a significant influence for most of our regions.
By Jack Archer, General Manager, Research and Policy
Originally published in the October quarterly edition of Public Administration Today