Finance Secretary Rosemary Huxtable PSM puts challenge out to public service leaders

Rosemary Huxtable PSM, Secretary of the Department of Finance, delivered the first IPAA ACT Secretary Series address of 2020 recently at the National Portrait Gallery.

On a bright Canberra morning, leaders from across the public sector took time out from the early challenges of 2020 to hear Rosemary Huxtable PSM, Secretary of the Department of Finance, speak.

Following an introduction by Dr Steven Kennedy (IPAA ACT President and Secretary of the Treasury) and an Acknowledgement of Country, Rosemary explained that the purpose of her address was to challenge public sector leaders to consider how they can be most effective in the work of public administration.

The Context for Finance

Before zeroing in on the elements of effectiveness in public administration, Rosemary set some context for her remarks on public sector organisation and practices.

The first was an acknowledgement of the capacity of the public sector to surge and respond to unexpected and difficult circumstances.

The second was her reflection on the role of a Finance Department. Looking back at the history of the department, Rosemary observed that “It’s in the DNA of the Department of Finance to challenge and question”.

And she explained that “Achieving value in government expenditure and administration, is at the core of what we do. It guides many of our functions, actions, and powers of persuasion.”

She also noted the conundrum faced by government: “Generally people want government to stay out of their lives, but they want government to be there when they’re required.”

The First Challenge

The first challenge Rosemary put to public sector leaders was “to consider our organising principles as a public sector, and how they can be as effective as possible”.

“Looking closely at how we operate… I think it’s about disrupting traditional models and fundamentally changing the way we work, and really being open to new ideas…

This means really focusing on doing the simple things well, the bread-and-butter administrative functions that we are all required to do, by finding the best process, optimising that process… and building scale and expertise in these tasks across the APS.

And if we do these things well, we build trust and confidence with those who rely on us.”

The Second Challenge

Her next challenge was “how to measure and scrutinise our performance, ensuring that what we do aligns with priorities and continues to do so”.

Rosemary expanded on this theme by saying:

“We have a mature, world-leading public sector and fiscal institutions, and legislative frameworks in which we work…

We have the momentum of the Public Governance Performance and Accountability Act, which is now at its sixth full year of implementation…

My message to you is know the PGPA, get under its hood and work to deliver what it enables: the quality of performance reporting, transparency and accountability, managing and engaging with risk, and cross-government cooperation.”

Rosemary spoke about understanding that performance is “a strategic conversation that enables us to hold ourselves accountable, and to seek improvement”.

She then explained how Finance is focusing on making information more accessible:

“Last year the Finance Minister launched — a website that allows people to find, search, compare and share information about what the government is doing, and how public money is spent.

There have been over 33,000 users of the site and 178 annual reports have been published using the digital reporting tool — which enables a view of end-to-end performance and accountability, and it enables data to be interrogated and comparisons to be made.”

She flagged the next opportunity as being the leveraging of big data and advances in technology:

“The APS has always been a great collector of data. It’s an enormous resource for which we are custodians, and we need to use it well.

Investing in and building capability to enable organisations to efficiently generate value through data and data analytics processes is already happening…

Departments are working together to transform the quality and rigour of advice to government through improved use of data analytics to target public expenditure.”

The third challenge

Rosemary’s final challenge was the multi-faceted challenge of public sector productivity with its elements of financing, technology and capability.

With respect to financing, Rosemary said:

“Part of being effective and productive is choosing the right investment approach. This is not a one-size-fits-all world…

Increasingly I think we have to adopt a structured and considered mindset to what is the best investment approach to achieve the outcomes sought, and build capability in how we advise government on these matters…

Choosing the right investment tools and approaches is critical.”

Speaking on technology, she said that a “focus on productivity inevitably leads to a discussion about the most effective use of technology… But we also need to embrace how technology can unlock business process efficiency”.

One of the examples she gave was the Near Real Times Funds Project which is modernising cash flow management across government by automating the whole-of-government payment runs and manual reconciliation of accounts.

With respect to capability Rosemary said:

“Having the right workforce deployed in the right way and operating to maximum effect is the final piece in the productivity puzzle.

Getting this right has many parts…

In Finance we have partnerships with two academic institutions… and we’ve shared this resource: agencies across the Commonwealth participate, building networks and expertise…

And… we’ve been looking behind large datasets… to look at some key questions: What makes teams more productive? How can we improve staff engagement? And what drives productivity?”.

Rosemary closed her address by saying that everyone, not just leaders and the SES of the public sector, should be engaged in the modern challenges of public administration:

“These obligations touch every one of us: to understand the teams that we work in or manage; consciously building our skills and expertise; to be open to new ideas and ways of working; and to keep a focus on performance and productivity is central to our culture and how we work.”

She was then joined in conversation by Dr Steven Kennedy before being asked a series of questions from the floor, including one from Dr Jill Charker (Deputy Secretary, Department of Education, Skills and Employment):

“I was interested in your perspective, noting that whole-of-government perspective that your role gives you, on opportunities to better drive value in the services we directly deliver to citizens, or in some cases, indirectly deliver to citizens?”

In reply, Rosemary spoke about the need to consider the full gamut of the policy cycle and reiterated the need to focus on achieving value, as well as forming lines of communication between agencies:

“I’m a great believer that the people who are closest to the issue, or who have the greatest experience on the ground, are the one’s who will have the best ideas about how to go about delivery.”

A video of the address, and the question and answer session which followed, is available below.

Secretary Series