In Brief | Machinery of Government

After the 2019 Federal Election there are likely to be some organisational and functional changes in the Commonwealth.  Changing the way the public sector is organised provides opportunities and challenges.The terms ‘machinery of government changes’ (MoG changes) and ‘administrative re-arrangements’ are interchangeable and are used to describe these changes.

The following resources may help you understand this important aspect of public administration.  Feedback welcome here!

The phrase ‘machinery of government’ is thought to have originated with the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in Considerations on Representative Government (1861). A number of national governments including those of Australia, Canada, South Africa and the UK have adopted the term in official usage. In Australia to 'Mog' has even become a verb in general usage in the public sector.

Ministerial responsibility and the capacity of the Prime Minister to direct the machinery of government are essential for the maintenance of constitutional government in the Westminster system. In this article for the Canadian Journal of Public Administration, Nicholas d'Ombrain argues that the appropriate exercise of the Prime Minister's machinery of government powers safeguards ministerial responsibility when its principles are applied throughout the organisation of government.

MoG changes involve relatively few decision-makers and generally occur in the period immediately after a general election, but may occur at any other time. These changes provide the government with the opportunity to reorder the Ministry, reward allies and signal new priorities to the electorate.  Governments expect MoG changes to be implemented quickly so that they can get to work on the administrative and policy goals affected by changes.

The Department of Finance and the Australian Public Service Commission issue detailed guidance for the public service on what to take into account during MoG changes. See also this brief from the Attorney General's Department on the significant administrative re-arrangements concerning ministers, departments and other Commonwealth bodies, and Australian Public Service employees and other Commonwealth officials, that usually follow a general election. 

MoG changes can deliver improved accountability, clarify roles and responsibilities, and provide a foundation for a government’s reform agenda. At the federal level, The Prime Minister issues an Administrative Arrangements Order (AAO) detailing functions and the administration of Acts of Parliament. See Prime Minister Morrison's most recent AAO  here. For past governments, the National Archives of Australia website has all AAOs from Federation. Beverley Castleman analyses MoG changes between 1928 and 1982 in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.  

Where functions and responsibilities are moved between agencies, there is usually a gaining agency (acquiring functions/responsibilities) and a transferring agency (transferring functions/responsibilities). Employees, funding and contracts of the transferring agency are moved with their function/responsibility to the gaining agency. In 1999, the Parliamentary Library published a research paper Departmental Machinery of Government Since 1987 by John Nethercote, which shows the impact of ‘sweeping changes’ made by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1987 and their long-term impact on Commonwealth administration.

A 2016 Australian National Audit Report Machinery of Government Changes following the 2013 Federal Election concluded that the Australian Public Service (APS) managed large scale MoG changes well by maintaining delivery of services and payments to the public, and managing transitional risks and associated costs. There was, however, "scope to improve the timely transfer of financial appropriations and staff resources for large scale MoG changes such as those announced in 2013."  PwC also released a document at that time on realising the value of MoG changes that summarised some of the complexities associated with such changes.

Innately disruptive, MOG changes can be expensive, resource and time intensive, and complex to implement.This can distract agencies away from delivering government services. For example, changes to processes and systems can impose unintentional costs to businesses dealing with government and newly merged agencies often experience problems with compatibility of ICT and recordkeeping systems. One UK study found the cost of setting up a new department to be at least £15 million in the first year, while a parliamentary committee estimated the cost of Victoria’s post-2014 election MoG to be over $5 million, though the committee complained the figures were rubbery.

Research undertaken in 2016 by the Public Sector Research Unit at UNSW found  that "Despite the prevalence of restructuring efforts in government (and other sectors) many – if not most – change efforts fail to achieve their desired outcomes". This largely stems from the complexities associated with integrating people, managerial styles and different cultures. You can read the research findings, which focused on structural changes to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, at this link.

Former Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger makes his case for well structured AAOs in his 2013 Canberra Times article A Wish-list for Better Government. He observes that "the 1987 reforms set the model for such an arrangement, with senior (portfolio) ministers in cabinet, and other ministers and parliamentary secretaries taking particular responsibilities within portfolios to support the portfolio ministers. To help cabinet focus on the big issues, ministers should not, as a rule, have responsibilities that cross portfolio boundaries....The rule helps portfolio ministers, working with their assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries, to manage most intra-portfolio priorities without close cabinet involvement."

Deborah Blackman and others at the UNSW Public Sector Research Group reiterate that MoG changes are often poorly planned, disruptive and costly and outlined five priority areas for reform to the Independent Review of the APS, summarised by The Mandarin here. Dynamic ways of working has become one of the change priorities for the  Independent Review. "The future APS must be able to take on challenges with the capacity to adopt new approaches, reconfigure teams and deploy skills where and when most needed. Machinery of government changes can be used to align the APS with government priorities, but the service should not wait for – or rely on – these to transform the way it works."

In their response to the interim report of the Independent Review, both Andrew Podger and former Secretary Helen Williams advocate for  clarification of "the principles behind ongoing [Machinery of Government] arrangements and the use of different governance structures." Read more on their response in The Mandarin here.

In his 2018 Address to the APS, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, urged “against regarding the APS as a set of Lego blocks to be painlessly recreated” and called for future change to focus on “improving the lot of the citizen". Conversely, Martin also urged the federal bureaucracy to better prepare new MPs, ministers and staffers for thier jobs. The video of this event can be found here.

The Mandarin also has a recent piece from Bob McMullan and Sean Inglis on suggested principles for MoG changes, the principles being: design for the citizen; real change takes time; stability and stewarship have value; and avoid merry-go-round decisions.

During the election period and before an incoming government makes changes to the administrative arranges there is a period knows as the caretaker period. Government does not stop working while in caretaker mode. The normal administrative work of every department and agency continues. However, no major new undertakings are generally commenced or agreed to except after consultation with the alternative government, the Opposition. 

For more on this go to our In Brief on the Caretaker Conventions.


 

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