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Structures and processes

The Cabinet, under the prime minister’s leadership, is the principal coordination forum of the executive arm of the Australian Government, but most day-to-day decisions are made by ministers and the agencies that comprise their portfolios. This is efficient.

It allows specialisation and reduces the load placed on the prime minister and the Cabinet process so that they can focus on the key strategic issues. It does, however, mean special thought has to be given to the handling of problems that cross portfolio boundaries.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), through the Cabinet Implementation Unit (CIU), should be the central point in government for spreading advice on best practice in whole of government work and for reporting on successes and failures. It will provide support to whole of government work through a web presence devoted to practical guidance to departments.

Portfolio secretaries take responsibility for monitoring whole of government work across the APS. Their regular meetings should be enhanced by receiving regular feedback from the CIU on progress on multi-agency initiatives, and by canvassing whole of government issues or initiatives. This provides an opportunity for ensuring that all the appropriate parties are engaged.

This report also recommends that major whole of government issues continue to be discussed at annual high-level retreats for secretaries and agency heads. These provide an opportunity to discuss in-depth one or more of the most complex issues facing Australia and how the APS is responding to support the government in addressing the issues.

Experience has shown that secretaries are often able to resolve the way forward on difficult whole of government issues more quickly and effectively than lower-level committees. By modelling good practices in interdepartmental collaboration, secretaries can provide a development opportunity for APS employees. Within the limits of practicality and security, opportunities for APS employees to observe secretary-level committees in action should be provided.

There is a need for careful choice of the appropriate structures to support whole of government work—for example, well run interdepartmental committees (IDCs) are very effective in coordination, including crisis management, and in producing policy options. Their representative nature and consensus approach to decision making can make them less useful for dealing with difficult policy issues where there is deep contention between portfolios, or in the community, and tight time limits. Dedicated taskforces under strong leadership and working directly to the prime minister, a senior minister or a committee of Cabinet have proved to be more likely to produce high-quality outcomes in these circumstances.

A number of options are available to deliver integrated programs or services to a region or individuals, or in support of a range of government objectives. These include joint teams, agency arrangements and the ‘one-stop shop’ now provided by Centrelink across a range of income support and related services. Increasingly, information technology will facilitate the provision of ‘virtual’ one-stop shop services to business and individuals. Choosing the appropriate model will reflect the timeframe over which the services are to be delivered, the policy roles of the principal partners, the scale of the task and whether it can be delivered at a marginal cost by an existing agency. The right governance and accountability arrangements are critical to good outcomes.

The amendments to the Public Service Act in 1999, and earlier to the Financial Management and Accountability Act, have allowed the creation of new agencies, working to ministers, to carry out functions not suitable for a single department. Some of the new ‘frontier’ agencies, such as the Australian Greenhouse Office, the National Oceans Office and the Australian Government Information Management Office, have an important whole of government role. They are operating in fields that are in important ways new and potentially controversial. Once more, governance, accountability and stakeholder management arrangements are very important.

Good practice in terms of structures and processes should be highlighted in the State of the Service report, and maintained as part of the proposed whole of government web presence.

However, whole of government work is not just about structures. It is as much about the way things are done. Successful outcomes depend on power sharing, thinking outside the box and solving practical problems of information management and infrastructure, staffing, budget and accountability, and stakeholder relationships. These issues are addressed in the following chapters.

  • The core of whole of government work includes the Cabinet system and meetings of key leaders such as regular portfolio secretaries’ meetings.
  • Existing structures can be used better to support and monitor APS whole of government work and this chapter recommends some new roles for these structures.
  • There are other horizontal structures which can be used as platforms for whole of government work.
  • This chapter discusses the features, and advantages and disadvantages of the following horizontal structures: interdepartmental committees, taskforces, joint teams, agency arrangements and frontier agencies.
  • Each type of structure is defined and discussed in terms of its suitability for different types of APS work.