Q&A with Darren Foster the new Director-General of DPC
Since the new State Government rolled in, sweeping changes have been made, including a new DG for the Public Service.
We sat down with Darren Foster about his new appointment as Director-General, Department of Premier and Cabinet.
Congratulations on your important new role, what made you want to take up the Director General job?
I first worked in the Department of Premier and Cabinet as a Level 2 officer more than 30 years ago. It’s a great privilege to be back as Director General to support the Cabinet and work with the public sector to deliver important reforms in a wide range of portfolio areas. The Government’s objectives are crystal clear: repair the State’s finances; drive economic development to create jobs; expand the public transport network and deliver better services to the people of Western Australia. I’m keen to be part of this change.
What state government projects are exciting you at the moment?
I’m very focused on setting up a team to rebuild the public sector – based on the 300+ recommendations of the Service Priority Review and the Special Inquiry into Government Programs and Projects. At its heart, this is cultural reform, and it needs a sustained effort over several years to ensure the benefits are fully realised.
A central element of the reforms is digital service delivery, data sharing and data analytics. This is an area where WA has slipped behind other States and we have to catch up. Step one for me is to deliver data sharing legislation: we’re the only State without it. Lack of data sharing laws is a barrier to the innovation we need to more effectively target services, cut red tape and costs. It will also get the public sector thinking of itself as a single service provider to the people of WA.
There’s also a great cross Government collaborative effort going on to look at all the policy settings, legislation and capital investments necessary to address the bottlenecks in the justice system and pressures in prisons. All agencies are working well together to come up with creative solutions - without any territoriality. It’s the public sector at its best.
Besides the budget, what are the state’s biggest challenges right now?
The State has a lot of challenges: a slowly recovering economy after a very significant downturn, high demand for State services in key areas like education and health, a serious meth problem and significant social and economic disadvantage in some areas of the State. The tight financial situation overshadows everything, as it must. The State can’t keep using the credit card to pay the grocery bills. While this puts enormous pressure on the public sector, it also heralds a great period of innovation. When there’s little money around, we have to be creative, questioning what we do, and why and how we do it.
This government has brought in big changes for the public sector, how do you feel they are playing out?
It’s early days. As I’ve said to many people, changing the nameplates on Departments is the easy part. The cultural change is the real reform, and that takes years. I can see a lot more collaboration and goodwill between Departments on shared public policy problems, and a great enthusiasm for delivering on the Government’s economic and social reform program. A key change is the greater leadership role being played by the central agencies, Treasury, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Finance and the Public Sector Commission, who are working much more closely together to help the rest of the sector. It’s a start, but we’ve got a long way to go.
I’m especially pleased with the report of the Directors General Working Group on ‘Red tape’ in the public sector, released recently. This lays out a path to hack away at the undergrowth that inhibits public servants from doing their daily work. This hasn’t had attention for decades. It breeds risk aversion and drives down productivity. It’s not a great BBQ topic, but if those outside the public sector saw the red tape public servants must deal with every day they’d be shocked!
After MOG, VTSS and AER efficiencies – do you think public sector has had it hard?
It’s always tough for the public sector. I’ve never known it to be any other way. When the economy’s booming, the sector never has enough resources to move quickly to meet increasing service demands, and when there’s an economic downturn the sector must manage the cumulative effects of efficiency dividends, ‘workforce renewal’ policies, functional reviews, voluntary severances and so on. I think it’s particularly hard on small agencies, who don’t have much financial room to move.
The machinery of government changes in 2017 were the most comprehensive in my memory, but necessary to create the critical mass to weather further savings measures, break down silos and start the cultural change needed to focus on key priorities and deliver better services. WA still has many Departments, agencies and public entities in a State with only 2.6 million people! We shouldn’t be afraid to question the status quo.
What is the state government’s future plan of the workforce? Will we see the nurturing of young talent and investment in the public sector?
The skills and capability of the sector needs rebuilding – and that is central to the Government’s reform program. There will be functional leaders in areas such as human resources, project management and financial management to mentor and support officers working in these areas; and, in due course, a new graduate recruitment program to bring science, policy and financial skills into the sector. Our sector is second only to Tasmania in its ageing demographic: we need to bring in a new generation.
The Government has also made it clear it wants to end ongoing contracts to give officers permanency and security so they can develop their careers as public servants.
Are you feeling positive about the future for WA?
Western Australia has a great future. We have untapped tourism potential, an incredibly rich and biodiverse environment, enormous mineral and natural gas resources, a long history of research and innovation in our agricultural industries and a relatively young and resilient population. We’re well connected to Asia and successive Governments have cultivated deep trade relationships with our key markets. Our past successes – and our future opportunities – depends on a capable, contemporary public sector that embraces changes, experiments with new ideas (even if that means occasional failures), listens to the ideas of industry, non-government organisations and the community, and works to a long term strategic vision for the State.
Photo credit: The Australia and New Zealand School of Government