Delivering community services

New imperatives and opportunities

by Professor Anne Tiernan

For advocacy bodies like the Queensland Council of Social Service, eliminating of inequity is at the heart of delivering vital community services — services related to education, health, transport, domestic violence and welfare, among countless others.

Given the tumult of the past five years in policy and service delivery, particularly in Queensland, it is worth looking at the journey of social services reform, and what might be coming next. To do this, we must review recent trends in public sector reform — such as network delivery, co-design, contestability, and efforts to bring the voice of service users into policy development — and their implications. There is, arguably, no clear and shared view of what these reform directions entail, which fundamentally affects their success.

The context of politics and public policy in Australia has never been so volatile. To influence policy, you must develop a nuanced understanding of the policy environment and the competing pressures on getting desired outcomes.

The trajectory of public sector reform

The past forty years have seen almost continuous reform that has dramatically reshaped the framework of public service provision. These are commonly referred to as the ‘new public management’ (NPM) reforms. Australia and New Zealand were enthusiastic proponents of public sector reform, but, interestingly, Queensland was slow to embrace these and remains among the least reformed public sectors in Australia.

Scholars trace three broad phases of public sector reform. The first represented a shift from traditional public administration — dominated by government and focused on hierarchy — to the new public management (NPM).

The first wave of NPM was managerialism. It emphasised professional management, performance measurement, management by results and value for money. In the second wave, governments embraced marketisation, with its focus on efficiency, competition and markets. They challenged traditional public sector monopolies and withdrew from areas where there were functioning private markets, often contracting out. The third wave of NPM, which is arguably where we are now, focuses on service delivery and citizen choice.

These reforms have been anything but coherent and linear, yet they accumulate to form a disjointed framework for the public sector. In the UK context, Hood and Lodge said “initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, leaving behind residues of varying size and style”.

These processes, often centrally-led and driven from the top-down, have intended and unintended consequences that take time to percolate through delivery systems. By the time their effects are evident, the reform caravan has moved on. Reform proponents, particularly politicians, rarely see the results. Instead, they are supplanted by ‘new brooms’ with limited institutional memory, but their own ideas about how to shake up perceived problems.

The rise of new public governance

NPM introduced new interests into the design and delivery of public policies and services, creating challenges for coordination and coherence. Scholars describe the resulting proliferation of actors and interests, as well as the mixed systems of provision, as representing a shift from government to governance.

The new public governance (NPG) recognises that governments work through networks of organisations to achieve shared goals. Increasingly complex delivery chains could no longer be managed through traditional hierarchy. Consider the large delivery systems of education, health and transport, where public, private and not-for-profit providers all play a role. They exist in relationships of interdependency — bargaining and exchanging resources, like money and staff.

Essentially, they rely on each other to get stuff done.

For academics, the shift from government to governance and from NPM to NPG is just how things work now in policy and public service provision. We recognise that public management has become infinitely more complex, but we take it for granted that policy-makers and senior officials must manage a mix of bureaucracy, markets and networks with an increasingly sophisticated array of management skills and strategies.

Photo: Paul Downey, CC BY 2.0

We need a broad base of shared understanding, so that we may grasp the potential benefits of different reform models. Thirty years of experience and experimentation means a far broader range of instruments is available to governments seeking reform with market-based mechanisms. Alternative models reflect varying degrees of government investment and control — drawing on providers in the public, private and third sectors, or a range of hybrids.

Improving efficiency: Marketisation, competition and contestability

Marketisation and contestability, in theory, seek to make the provision of public services more efficient, innovative and responsive. There are a range of possibilities far broader than the myopic focus on privatisation or contracting out. There are also potential benefits in uncoupling services from large and often rigid centralised systems that, in the public sector, are subject to the whims and vagaries of policy, funding and ministerial change.

These forces represent some of the biggest barriers to productivity and performance — but that insight is often lost on politicians.

Competition and contestability depend on diversity — on a variety of providers, service models and approaches to achieving agreed outcomes. It also brings with it a range of other benefits, including flexibility, adaptiveness and innovation, because it enables experimentation, problem-solving and ongoing change.

But, that diversity also challenges a key tenet of public sector provision: consistency and sameness. It is likely to provoke a backlash among voters who distrust governments’ motives and fear that savings are political code for poorer services. We should guard against that.

Navigating complexity and working together for better outcomes

The presence of for-profit providers in human services provision is troubling, although there is potential for social investment. There is also great potential in the way competition helps to harness the knowledge, skills and motivations of those involved in service delivery. By allowing them greater decision-making authority, this incentivises them to innovate.

Take, for example, the schools education context, where there is a focus on autonomy, local control and empowering professionalism. This is fraught with risks and challenges, but also opportunities for experimentation and adjustments based on real-time evidence. Bottom-up initiatives that catalyse innovation in this way offer greater reform potential than blueprints imposed from the top-down.

Photo: Medical Office Careers, CC BY 2.0

That said, autonomy and local control are means, not ends in themselves. They can get to where policy-makers want to go: better learning outcomes. We spend so much time arguing about these means, that we can easily lose sight of the intended outcomes.

Ultimately, I’m agnostic on the question of ownership, be it public, private or community. I have seen enough inefficiency in all three to be convinced that incentives and accountability, along with culture and behaviour, have the greatest impact on responsiveness and service quality.

The challenge for governments is to imagine service systems that unleash the potential for innovation — harnessing the energy, knowledge and networks of local providers to improve services, while ensuring high standards of accountability and appropriate risk management. There are formidable political barriers to doing this, but we must try.

This article has been adapted from an address to the Queensland Council of Social Service at its Annual General Meeting.


To Erin Maclean for her contribution to this piece.



Anne Tiernan is Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.

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