We need a stronger public service. Here's why

Posted on 08 Aug 2023

By David Crosbie

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A better Public Service is vital to improving the effectiveness of charities and NFPs, says David Crosbie.

When you think of the big challenges that lie ahead for our country and our planet, it seems obvious that we will need stronger leadership, a more effective charity and NFP sector, and a more competent and better resourced public service if we are to thrive in the coming decades.

Climate change and growing inequality are just two of the big issues confronting Australia.

We are also facing a lack of skills available in our workplaces, global inflation and cost of living pressures, the growing threat of cybersecurity and a failure to bridge the many gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Responding effectively to these and other complex issues requires quality information and a capable public sector.

In some countries, conservatives have deliberately attacked their own governments by undermining trust in government agencies, setting the public sector unachievable goals with diminishing resources and attacking the roles public servants fulfill.

Australia has had a taste of this approach over the past ten years with the deliberate running down of the Commonwealth public service.

Public service austerity and smaller government was sold as a political winner, but the endless cycle of cuts, resignations, political pressure and decreasing morale has hollowed out Australia’s public service.

Parliament House

Robodebt and the over-reliance on consultants are just two of many examples of the price we pay for this anti-government approach.

There are many critical dimensions to the role of the public service that go well beyond policy development or the regulation of markets and industries. In almost every area there is necessary interaction and overlap with charities and NFPs.

Unfortunately, at present, the public sector is often failing to meet even the most basic of service standards.

This week The Guardian published a story outlining what many charities recognise as a typical example of how hard it can be to navigate and access urgent government services.

Having exhausted her super savings and almost run out of money, Maryanne Watts applied for Jobseeker.

“Watts says she spent at least an hour waiting on hold every time she called, which was at 8am – the minute the phone lines opened for the day,” wrote Stephanie Convery.

“If she called any later, she received a congestion message. After six weeks of relentless following up, Watts’ ‘urgent’ application was finally approved.

“For some people, though, the wait is vastly longer.”

"A better Public Service is vital to improving the effectiveness of charities and NFPs."

There are similar stories about delays in processing immigration visas, aged care applications, NDIS applications and Veterans Affairs applications, to name just a few.

Government delays in responding to climate emergencies are also a major concern in many communities – particularly for people living in isolated and vulnerable locations.

This week’s story is in the National Indigenous Times, about Fitzroy Crossing residents, but it could be about many communities.

Governments need to improve their responses to floods, fires, cyclones, and other climate emergencies, but this will require extra resources.

Preparing communities; building social infrastructure through local charities and NFPs; strengthening physical infrastructure including energy and communications; protecting the supply of food, water and shelter; creating community-led response and recovery capacity: all these activities require a better informed and skilled public sector.

One good performance indicator of public sector administration is the number of freedom of information requests outstanding, which, as The Guardian reported, has escalated from 3,313 in 2018 to 9,202 in 2022.

While we talk about the need for increased productivity in Australia, the role of the public sector in reducing or increasing productivity is rarely discussed.

David Crosbie
Community Council for Australia CEO, David Crosbie.

For many charities and NFPs, the time wasted filling in forms to comply with overlapping or duplicated fundraising regulations and other pointless red tape is a good example of how a poor-quality public service affects productivity and the sector’s capacity to effectively serve our communities.

We can collectively address many of the challenges we are facing by working together and strengthening government capacity as well as building effectiveness in the charity and NFP sector.

This will happen only if we invest more in our public service, and increase its skills, understanding and capacity. While there are some signs that this is beginning to happen under the current government, we still have a long way to go.

As charities and NFPs we often need to point out the failings of government and hold it to account, and we often struggle with a public sector that is under resourced and ill informed. But we need to find ways to work constructively together if we are to address the local, national, and global challenges we will all face over the coming decades.

A better public service is vital to improving the effectiveness of charities and NFPs.

As humans living on a warming planet with growing inequality, we need better governments and public services, just as we need stronger charities and NFPs holding us all together.

David Crosbie has been CEO of the Community Council for Australia for the past decade and has spent more than a quarter of a century leading significant not-for-profit organisations, including the Mental Health Council of Australia, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and Odyssey House Victoria.

He has served on numerous national advisory groups and boards including the first advisory board for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the Not-for Profit Sector Reform Council, and the National Compact Expert Advisory Group, which he chaired.

His diverse career outside the sector includes stints as a teacher in prison, a probation officer, a university lecturer, a farm hand, a truck driver, a bank teller, a public servant, and a musician in a successful rock band.

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