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Part 3: Summary assessment

DAFF needs to be:

A policy leader—responsive to the government of the day, and the foremost policy influence on sustainable production and use of food and fibre.

Client focused with a modern service delivery approach—proactive in programs that protect the animal, plant and human health status of Australia and improve the productivity of portfolio industries; and offering the best possible service delivery options to its many and varied clients.

Contemporary in its approach to business and ICT systems—building systems that support a modern service-delivery approach, including cost-recovery arrangements suitable to its operations.

A source of easily accessible quality public information—shaping the public debate around contentious issues through strong foresighting and scenario analysis and effective communication.

The choices that must be made today in forging this future are for the new departmental Secretary and his leadership colleagues to make. They are fortunate to be able to build on the considerable strengths within DAFF that have been fostered in recent times. These include a:

  • highly motivated workforce, rich with committed staff, many of whom have backgrounds in rural and regional Australia and farming communities
  • diverse body of professionals, from scientists to economists, agronomists to dog handlers, biosecurity officers to information technology (IT) professionals
  • united leadership group
  • new Strategic Statement and RPM Framework that have been met with mostly positive staff feedback
  • post-event crisis response capability that is impressive
  • newly adopted risk-based approach along the biosecurity continuum (pre-border, border and post-border) that is intelligence-led and thereby more efficient and effective
  • tangible commitment in everyday practice across all sections of the department to the principles of evidence-based policy
  • culture of continuous improvement supported by a framework for facilitating innovation
  • strong web of relationships with ‘established’ and ‘traditional’ stakeholder groups.

The senior review team believes DAFF understands its core responsibilities. It is by many measures a ‘solid and capable’ organisation. However, by the criteria employed to assess capability under the APSC model, the department has several areas that require further development.

Policy leadership

The department does insufficient strategic thinking on the big issues facing DAFF’s portfolio industries and Australia’s natural environment and has been passive and inwardly focused when it comes to larger policy debates within government.

Stakeholders have noted throughout the review that the scope of functions carried out by DAFF has slowly reduced over time, with other departments now taking primary carriage of water and environmental responsibilities, for example. Industry has expressed concern over this perceived erosion of influence.

In the opinion of the senior review team, DAFF needs to move from being a policy taker to a policy maker – leader. It needs to recognise that its insularity and timidity in policy matters are both skills and confidence issues. It also needs to recognise stakeholder concerns and enmesh its efforts with those of other departments of government, with industry and with the community.

The leadership of DAFF should play a more visible and communicative role inside and outside the department in establishing a stronger vision for its portfolio industries and Australia’s natural environment. The department’s role and purpose needs to be clarified to support its portfolio industries. Staff need to understand their role in larger policy debates and be given the confidence to bring considered, strategic arguments forward.

The senior review team has noted the recent reviews of the rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) and the government’s policy statement in response. Consistent with its policy role and in the context of the significant public money invested, DAFF needs to identify cross-sectoral, public-interest research outcomes for the rural RDCs, and put in place appropriate accountability arrangements.

The Portfolio Secretary should provide a strategic coordinating link for the Minister and government on all aspects of the portfolio, including its agencies, ensuring that all pieces fit together with clear purpose.

Finally, the department has a serious reform program ahead of it. To ensure its ability to deliver reforms, together with the management of day-to-day operations under complex legislation, DAFF needs to consider expanding its existing legal capability.

A client-focused, modern service delivery approach

A crucial part of the department’s business is service delivery.

Survey data collected by DAFF show that clients and stakeholders view the department as friendly and responsive. Furthermore, in the opinion of the senior review team, individual parts of the department appear to relate well to their clients.

DAFF’s biosecurity service delivery responsibilities are the largest component of the department’s resources, making up approximately 70% of business. The senior review team found there is a sound and reliable service delivered by biosecurity operations.

However, all parts of the department should recognise their impact on service delivery roles and work together for their clients.

As DAFF recognises, its service delivery performance is not what is expected of a modern service delivery agency. In the senior review team’s opinion, the department is many years behind best practice in the Australian Public Service (APS).

For each client group, there needs to be a clear articulation of all activities the department undertakes, to form an integrated service offer.

A modern, holistic approach to better client service is also required. The elements of such an approach have been articulated in DAFF’s national service delivery approach but have yet to be embedded throughout the department. These principles provide a good platform for modernising the delivery systems. Improvements are underway, making the department well placed to achieve a contemporary service delivery model. The department is looking to ‘build once and use many’, better manage service channels and have a greater web presence for clients and stakeholders.

A contemporary approach to business and information, communication and technology (ICT) systems

Contemporary ICT systems and business architecture support a modern service delivery agency.

While DAFF does an impressive job of containing biosecurity risks and running a range of programs, there is an over-reliance on manual, paper-based interactions with clients. There is equally an absence of standard processes and procedures across the department for many of its service delivery functions.

DAFF has moved from a federated model to a less siloed operation since 2010–11, and there is great willingness to share knowledge, information, expertise and resources across the department and with partner-agencies in other jurisdictions. Systems to support such exchange, however, are clunky and inadequate.

It is notable that 60% of the department’s budget comes from cost-recovery operations. As part of these operations, DAFF manages many fees and charges and consults with well over 100 industry bodies on cost-recovery arrangements.

This creates a level of inefficiency that would not be accepted in private industry and represents a major threat to the department’s future capability. Accordingly, there needs to be a major organisational focus on reform of the cost-recovery arrangements and the proper internal allocation of resources. Such reform presents an opportunity to move from an old-fashioned system to a new paradigm that will ultimately benefit both portfolio industries and the department.

The department’s ICT has historically suffered from under investment, poor decision making and the lack of an enterprise-wide strategy. Its new ICT Strategic Plan is looking to move DAFF away from its legacy of localised systems and databases and build capacity to store, share and link information across the enterprise. This will significantly enhance the department’s ability to transform its service offers and manage its knowledge.

A source of easily accessible quality public information

On issues relevant to its portfolio responsibilities, DAFF has sometimes found itself between community groups and its portfolio industries. Increasingly, industries with poor social acceptance are failing to engage with the community and instead are turning to DAFF for assistance. The department’s response to such emerging issues has been slow and costly to its reputation.

If DAFF is to anticipate these issues and their implications for policy, program and service delivery, it needs to further develop its capability in foresighting and scenario analysis. It also needs to provide accessible, authoritative, public information to industry, the media and the general public. DAFF is well placed to develop this capability, given the strength of its scientific and economic expertise and its ability to collate and use evidence in support of decision making.

Approaches to shaping the public discussion on emerging issues have already been successfully implemented in other areas of government service and present possible models for DAFF to emulate or adapt. One such model is the material on public policy issues with significant technical content that are also contentious, which is published by Food Standards Australia New Zealand on its website.

In addition, there may be scope for the Secretary and senior colleagues to speak publicly on issues, setting out the complexity of competing views in the interests of shaping more informed public discussion.