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Part 3: Summary assessment

DRALGAS has a strong focus on capability, having built new policy and corporate areas from scratch and continuing to refine and enhance capability in its existing work areas. Its focus on delivering outcomes, on fostering a strong internal culture and on its commitment to external collaboration provides the department with a strong base for continued capability development.

A common theme articulated to the review team, from internal and external stakeholders, is that DRALGAS, as a new department, has faced many challenges in building core organisational systems and processes. While the review team observed and discusses the impacts of these challenges, it also notes that despite them, the department's strong culture has allowed it to ably respond and move onto the next stage of its maturity, often compensating for the void created by its lack of mature systems and processes.

A feature of this portfolio is that both principal Ministers know their policy areas well, have strong reform agendas, and are very familiar with their relevant constituencies. This strong portfolio direction requires DRALGAS to be highly responsive and agile, to both respond to its Ministers' expectations and to simultaneously develop organisational capability.

The department has capability strengths in many aspects of its operations, which can largely be credited to the Executive's leadership capabilities, and the confidence, conviction and commitment of its employees.

The Secretary's leadership is highly regarded by internal and external stakeholders. The Secretary and the Executive Board have brought together functions from across government to form a new department and have developed a cohesive narrative to join these functions into a strategic whole.

The SES works well as a united group, with a real sense of collaboration and common purpose, sharing information and redirecting funds and staff as priorities change.

This commitment to collaboration extends outside DRALGAS, with many external stakeholders citing the department's approach as refreshing, genuine and supportive. The department's relationship with its closest delivery partners, its portfolio agencies and most Regional Development Australia Committees, is strong.

DRALGAS has a solid record of innovative productivity improvements across its work, some of which are in response to resource constraints. The department's strategic plan has also formalised its approach to fostering innovation, which is designed to embed innovative activity within and across the organisation.

DRALGAS is committed to developing a solid evidence-base and a strong analytical platform to support its policy arguments. Examples include its creation of the Regional Economics and Infrastructure Policy branch, creation of the Internal Economic Evidence Committee (to support policy development across the department), and funding of the Regional Australia Institute (to provide an independent source of regional information and policy advice).

Financial management and budgeting behaviours, at departmental level, appear strong and are well regarded externally, even as many corporate-enabling processes are still a work in progress.

In regard to business planning, DRALGAS has encouraged a line-of-sight from departmental outcomes through to divisional and individual work plans. It has also adopted a high-quality framework for individual performance management.

DRALGAS has acknowledged a number of challenges in developing its capability, including its:

  • establishment as a new department, with functions transferred from other agencies without adequate assistance for start-up costs
  • requirement to perform a new whole-of-government coordination role, typically found in central agencies, to ensure regional input on all Cabinet submissions, budget proposals and significant whole-of-government policies
  • Machinery of government additions of arts and sport functions which significantly altered its functional and staffing profile, nearly doubled its size and increased its operational complexity through additional shared services arrangements
  • subsequent need to recast departmental strategy, collaboration and delivery models at a time when the department was ready to transition from its start-up phase to embed and mature its systems and processes
  • loss of key expertise that remained with previous departments.

As with other government agencies, DRALGAS has been required to carefully adjust its resources in response to the constrained fiscal environment. The department achieved this during 2011–12 through a functional review and prioritisation of activity, restructures and downsizing. To achieve 2012–13 targets, this process is continuing which presents some operational challenges as Ministerial expectations grow and DRALGAS tries to balance its desired outcomes with its reduced resources.

The review team observed capability challenges for the department resulting from machinery of government changes:

  • When a new department is established, there are high expectations of policy and program reform in the early days. The very act of creating a department carries with it huge management challenges in meeting the government expectations while building the new organisation.
  • As a newly established department, DRALGAS did not have accumulated capital reserves on which it could draw to address necessary process and systems compatibility issues and integration. This has resulted in the department operating across multiple platforms and systems. The lack of a single information and communications technology (ICT) platform presents significant costs and risks for DRALGAS, as it now uses systems located on the ICT platforms of four external departments. Communications, reporting, human resources and financial management are less than satisfactory and result in decision making based on imperfect or unavailable information and time wasted on workarounds. ICT resources are focused on workarounds consuming time and resources which could be devoted to innovation and service improvement.
  • Sometimes, there is a reluctance to transfer high-performing staff who would be of benefit to the new department and some staff transferred may not always have requisite skills.
  • There has also been a loss of critical functionality, such as the inability to transfer the asset management system for the territories function, created by the Attorney-General's department at some expense, due to systems incompatibility.
  • The true financial and productivity costs of Machinery of Government changes need to be recognised.

Despite these challenges, DRALGAS is achieving results because of the commitment of its staff to deliver outcomes for its Ministers, partners and stakeholders. The department has also reconsidered the way it operates and staff are focused on approaching their work in innovative ways. However, relying on dedicated staff and incremental business improvement alone may come at the cost of sustainable long-term operations.

The overall impression of the review team is that DRALGAS is operating effectively under challenging circumstances. However, given the current stage in the department's development and its continuing challenge to match expectations with capacity, there are opportunities to further develop capability to enhance future performance. It is evident that the department is already aware of most of these opportunities but that its capacity to implement them has been affected by available time and resources.

With this in mind, the review team observed the following areas for capability improvement, for the department's consideration:

Clarity of focus

Vision and purpose

The department's new mission statement 'Building a stronger, creative and liveable Australia' is deliberately broad, to encompass all of its aspirations. However, it was reported to the review team that this breadth does not always provide those outside DRALGAS with a clear understanding of the department's focus, particularly with its role in regional Australia. Similarly, standing alone, the mission statement does not provide staff internally with a galvanising call to arms to drive their decisions and behaviour.

One suggested approach, which may help foster greater internal alignment between divisional and departmental outcomes and provide greater relevance to key customers/stakeholders, could be to develop subsidiary strategic purpose statements to bridge the gap between the high-level mission and divisional plans.

As resources continue to be constrained, the capacity for staff to maintain existing activities at current levels will become increasingly difficult. While some commented that DRALGAS may benefit from narrowing its focus to match its constrained resources, the department nonetheless has a wide brief from the Government and a demanding schedule from its Ministers, so any significant narrowing appears problematic. Notwithstanding these challenges, improved clarity of vision and strategic priorities, as well as devolution of decision making, should assist staff to understand what success looks like and make choices about how to deploy time and resources on activities of higher value.

This could be assisted by introducing a greater level of precision in what and how departmental success is measured. Current measures are not highly specific and the process for measurement appears subjective. Clarification of outcomes to be measured and a system for measuring these would give confidence to internal and external parties that DRALGAS is achieving its objectives.

Customer service delivery

It is evident that the department's first priority is to deliver the Ministers' policy agenda, which it does through various channels. DRALGAS leverages its relationships with partners and others to achieve the purpose of 'Building a stronger, creative, and liveable Australia'.

DRALGAS needs to define its customers—are they partners, stakeholders, citizens? If partners are one customer group, the review team observed various ways the department engages—through specialist desk officers; specialist branches; support officers in the field; meetings with senior staff; and regular access at many levels inside the department. While all staff who engage with partners share a common approach, such as openness, responsiveness, brokerage and providing practical assistance, the service delivery model is intuitive, modelled on the Secretary's behaviour. This approach is widely regarded as a strength of the department. To ensure it continues, DRALGAS would benefit from formalising its customer service delivery strategy.

While it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all delivery model will suit the unique demands of the department's customers and operating environments, there are likely to be aspects of its approaches that represent better practice and could be adopted across divisions. Key considerations in this process would be the link between strategic objectives and values, as well as customer expectations, relationships between service elements and key performance measures.

Focus on future workforce capabilities

Employee motivation and morale

While there is a strong sense of commitment across all levels within DRALGAS, some employees below the Senior Executive Service (SES) have suggested that morale is diminishing, a result of the expectation to work longer, harder and under significant pressure to maintain the current level of output with little opportunity for respite. This presents a significant risk for sustained productivity in the longer term.

Some SES are concerned about the current expectations on staff becoming 'business as usual' and also about maintaining staff morale and the potential negative impacts of change fatigue on particular staff. Other SES feel that staff motivation and morale is generally high in most divisions and that the workforce, having previously and consistently demonstrated resilience, has a continued capacity to deliver priority outputs. This was not confirmed by feedback to the review team or data from the 2012 State of the Service employee census (refer to page 20). Responses to the census also show a considerable divergence between more positive SES ratings and lower Executive Level (EL) and Australian Public Service (APS)-level ratings.

While some SES Band 1s have acknowledged their critical and constant requirement to maintain morale within their branches, there is an opportunity to do more. EL staff spoke to the review team about the need for better communication: 'knowing what is going on, and being listened to'. The early work that is underway to improve internal communications should continue, with a particular focus on improving the flow of information from senior levels to the rest of the department. Other strategies already in place in pockets of the department could be leveraged throughout. These include providing employees with a mix of short and long-term projects as well as ensuring they are given adequate opportunities for leave and genuine recognition for their efforts.

As departmental systems and processes mature, human resources metrics may be able to assist outside the staff survey cycle in identifying particular areas or patterns of concern to present more opportunities to tailor staff management strategies.

Skills to deliver

Some internal comment suggests that, in its early days, DRALGAS was able to recruit experienced staff and develop capability in key areas such as policy development and coordination. Other feedback suggests that some staff received through machinery of government changes may not always have the requisite skills to meet the requirements of the department.

There has also been significant comment that the department's policy development capability is variable and resides within a few key senior staff. Feedback from Ministers indicates that DRALGAS is progressing their agendas. The Ministers, and others inside and outside, consider that at this point in the department's development it needs to further strengthen its policy advising functions in all areas. This will include improving influencing skills, which will involve some areas transitioning from a program delivery to a policy development focus, and may involve transferring some program functions to portfolio agencies.

DRALGAS is aware of the need for this transition and acknowledges the need to reshape the role of its regional staff from a program management focus to a higher-order engagement, negotiation and policy development role. Such reshaping will be complex given the starting point and when completed there will need to be a capability assessment of staff in these areas against the new role definitions.

Reliance on key staff was a regularly raised concern, in the context of policy development (specifically a handful of solid policy developers at SES level) and in relation to some key EL2s with subject-matter expertise. More work is needed to develop a solid base of EL1s who can fill EL2 roles. This is of particular concern in a time of downsizing, where it is difficult to recruit from outside the department.

Some external stakeholders commented on the impact of movement within the SES on relationships and business continuity. There is a sense that workforce agility is not supported by adequate measures to manage and transfer corporate knowledge and to enable seamless business continuity.

DRALGAS has taken some early steps in formalising its process for skills development with the introduction of the new Learning and Development Framework. This framework has been well received, but it is too early to tell if it will be enough to bridge all capability gaps. The department would benefit from formalising its understanding of skill gaps as part of the individual performance management process to ensure staff are provided with relevant development opportunities.

Workforce planning

The workforce challenges described above will have significant implications for the department's workforce planning. To date, workforce planning has largely been ad hoc and managed within divisions. The review team notes that DRALGAS has recently prioritised the development of a formal departmental workforce plan, with planning stages due to commence in the concluding stages of this review. The review team notes the critical importance of this work to help address the department's range of workforce planning and reporting challenges.

Departmental management systems

ICT and decision-support improvements

The efficiency of the operation of DRALGAS since its inception has been affected by having multiple ICT systems inherited as a consequence of machinery of government changes. While there is no evidence that these inefficiencies have materially affected the customer-facing activities of the department, it is highly desirable that a more efficient ICT solution, consistent with available resources, be determined and implemented.

Strengthening and embedding corporate strategies

The Corporate Services division has progressively been developing and introducing a suite of corporate strategies and processes. There is still some work to be done to ensure consistent implementation and application of completed strategies, such as individual performance management and business planning. Other corporate strategies are a work in progress, such as the recently launched initiative to improve internal communications. The importance of appropriate change management activities to ensure strategy implementation, including making all managers accountable for their success or failure rather than reverting to the corporate area being made accountable, will be critical to success. Those strategies that are yet to be developed, but should be given priority status, are the workforce plan and customer service delivery.

Innovation and risk

The department's risk management policy is comparable to those of many other agencies. It calls for the identification and mitigation of enterprise, divisional, branch, section and project risks through formal planning, overseen by an internal Risk and Audit Committee. Audits are prioritised based on risk and resources. Internal comments suggest that as workloads increase, and resources decrease, introduction of revamped work practices may be resulting in the implicit acceptance of a greater level of operating risks. DRALGAS may benefit from strengthening its risk framework to more firmly embed risk management into the departmental culture and to ensure that risks are adequately identified, documented, reported and mitigated.

Conclusion

As a new department, DRALGAS has faced significant challenges in building capability. These challenges have been compounded by limited resources due to the current fiscal environment, which is likely to continue. However, by addressing the improvement areas identified in this report, the department will be well placed to build its capability to support the future delivery of its business objectives. The level of dedication, innovation and outcomes focus demonstrated by the Executive Board and staff, will assist DRALGAS to identify, implement and manage the changes required to ensure it operates sustainably into the future.