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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Beware the ‘mog’: If only politicians realised playing God is not their job

Queensland’s politicians need be less god-like and more business-like when it comes to “mogging” their public servants

writes Robert MacDonald.

Once you start looking for lack of government accountability, you can find it everywhere – even in the very machinery of government.

You’d think by now the experts would have worked out the best way to organise the public service for maximum effectiveness.

But no. Politicians in power love tinkering – endlessly chopping and changing the work and names of departments and agencies and reassigning ministerial and bureaucratic responsibilities.

Public servants call it “being mogged” and it can soak up large amounts of money, time and effort.

Some agencies are mogged so often they can lose sight of their role in life.

Or as Queensland’s Auditor-General Brendan Worrall says in a just-tabled report looking at government restructuring:

“For some functions that are transferred often, the time between finalising one restructure and commencing the next can be minimal, reducing the time they can focus on other priorities.”

Machinery of Government, or MOG, changes are most noticeable at the beginning of a new term of office when the incoming, or returning, administration rearranges things to address new priorities – a new focus on hydrogen or regional development perhaps.

But it’s happening all the time,  with this or that bit of government business being switched from one department to another, often without any particularly obvious reason for the move.

These tweaks are formally delivered by way of Administrative Arrangement Orders, which detail, “the principal responsibilities, the Acts they administer, and the departments, agencies and office holders responsible for them”.

The Palaszczuk Government has issued 28 administrative orders, involving dozens, if not hundreds, of separate changes, since winning government for the first time in 2015.

The big question is whether this persistent churn is worth all the effort and disruption.

Does it actually lead to better public administration or is it mainly just shuffling deckchairs to create the impression of activity and achievement?

Worrall has his doubts. His new report recommends proper standards of measurement and accountability for MOG changes.

He notes that when Labor won office, for the third time, in November 2020 it immediately launched yet another round of major MOG changes.

“Seventeen departments were restructured as part of the machinery of government changes announced on 12 November 2020,” Worrall says.

This resulted in two departments being abolished, one new department being created and 23 functions and 6200 people being transferred  between departments.

At what cost we may never know. MOG changes tend not to come with up-front budgets.

But it’s not just about the money.

“The costs of implementing significant restructures are both direct and indirect,” Worrall notes.

He says that the successive moving of functions between departments “creates confusion when trying to compare financial and performance information for departments over time”.

In addition, many departments, subjected to  years of MOG changes, continue to operate on multiple networks and “have not yet established consistent financial policies, approval processes or risk management practices”.

Reorganisations can also mean changes in leadership, culture and internal controls.

“Functions that frequently move between departments are more likely to become insular and resist fully integrating into their new department, as they expect it will be a short time until their next restructure,” Worrall says.

But most importantly perhaps, all this churning distracts from the core business of government.

“Even minor changes can have significant impacts and require a lot of resources to implement,” Worrall writes.

“During implementation resources and attention are naturally directed to the restructure and agencies can be distracted from their other responsibilities.”

Worrall makes two recommendations.

The first is that the Premier’s Department and Treasury provide advice to the incoming or returning government “on potential impacts of restructures, including the key risks to be managed and estimated costs to implement, drawing on lessons learnt from past machinery of government changes”.

The second is that departments be required “to articulate, measure and report on the benefits to be achieved from the machinery of government change and the cost to implement the restructure”.

“This should include guidance on how to measure and report benefits and costs,” Worrall adds.

Pretty fundamental stuff you might think. But is it likely to happen?

I seriously doubt it.

The politicians making these MOG decisions won’t want their god-like powers, which affect the working lives of thousands of public servants at a time, hamstrung by something as mundane as a cost-benefit analysis.

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