The lure and pitfalls of Machinery of Government: A ten point guide.
With the Federal Government election looming, parties and public servants will be turning their minds to machinery of government options. Changing the way the public sector is organised provides opportunities - but more often - challenges.
The benefits are that Machinery of Government (MOG) changes can be used to redefine the focus and priorities of a government, deliver improved accountability, clarify role and responsibilities, and provide a foundation for a government’s reform agenda. Central agencies control the provision of advice to incoming governments, and can use it to wield their influence.
Disruptive by intention, MOG can also be costly - both in human resource effort and budget cost. Implementation can be complex and it may take a long time to realise the intent of the change. Twenty years ago, the horror stories of MOG were wasted envelopes and letterhead. In the digital age, the horror stories are merging incompatible software systems and being able to continue to access records, which can take a long time and unbudgeted resources to resolve.
Consequently, MOG processes can distract agencies and resources from service delivery and from delivering government reforms in a timely and considered way. They can impost cost to businesses dealing with agencies as systems and processes change. Finally MOG changes are often scrutinised by public servants, stakeholders and community commentators, and if not managed well, these voices can create cultural change barriers to successful implementation.
To be done well, the rationale for MOG changes should to be clearly articulated and the benefit tangible and able to be realised. Machinery of Government (MOG) changes should achieve the following:
● Bureaucracy aligned to government priorities
● Clarity for citizens, businesses, and the community for the reason for the change
● Enabling efficient and effective operations
● Responsive to emerging challenges and opportunities
Because MOG is a change management process, it is important that the decisions taken can be described and talked about in a way that is meaningful.
Not all MOG changes have been successful, and the change management piece, starting at the beginning with a strong rationale, can be critical to this success. This is particularly important because the design phase is often highly confidential and does not benefit from wide consultation.
The following ten points should be addressed by the design team at the outset of any MOG design:
1) Do the changes align to a government priority?
2) How will the changes proposed be described as addressing a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be pursued?
3) Are there other enablers that could achieve the same outcome?
4) Can the benefits of the change be described in plain English to citizens, communities or business?
5) Is it understood how the changes impact on broader, more complex systems that the agency is a part of and who are the experts that need to be bought in to examine this?
6) Are there perverse outcomes or incentives that could emerge from the change that need to be considered? Think about the community to be served.
7) Are the changes best managed in a quick ‘big bang’ or in a slower, staged process?
8) Can the resource cost or saving of the change be modelled and allocated?
9) Are there any legislative or regulatory conflicts that require advice?
10) Are there Industrial Relations considerations?
If MOG can be avoided, it should be. It is a distraction and resource intensive process that takes public servants away from serving the Government of the day, can be frustrating for those outside of government too, and the benefit rarely outweighs this cost. However, it if is to be pursued, then working through these ten questions provides the greatest chance for a net benefit.