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Putting citizens first



In March 2010 the Australian Government released its blueprint for reform of the Australian Public Service (APS) entitled Ahead of the Game. But rather than leading with a focus on policy and values, the blueprint makes citizens the focus.

In Australia and elsewhere, concepts such ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-production’ have emerged to describe the deep collaboration needed between public servants, professionals, citizens and communities. Such approaches constitute a major shift in how the task of public administration is conceived and carried out.

A recent national conference, Putting Citizens First, was devoted to the theme of citizen engagement, and the Parliamentary Library has also published a research paper on the issue. But engaging citizens is not for the faint-hearted. It makes serious demands on public servants and on citizens. And it requires ministers and agency heads to devolve power to frontline professionals. Is it all a bridge too far ?

Public policy constantly evolves to respond to society's needs, to the preferences of citizens, and to steer or nudge people in directions that are conducive to the nation’s general wellbeing. It is a complex and fluid endeavour.

Public administration is becoming more concerned with placing the citizen at the centre of policymakers’ considerations. Public servants are being exhorted to collaborate, not merely consult; to reach out, not merely respond. Citizens are being invited to help develop and implement solutions. Their experience and advice can help governments to be more effective. Failure to engage will waste resources and curtail opportunities.

The public service must shift from a command-and-control approach to one which devolves power to frontline staff and professionals. Citizens need to develop the capacity to participate and deliberate well. We should acknowledge the challenges that this entails, especially where marginalised or disempowered citizens and groups are concerned. Preparing citizens for engagement doesn’t involve some kind of superficial induction course. It probably involves a rather long apprenticeship to democratic decision-making through participation and socialisation within family, educational, social and work environments.

When the Australian Government accepted the recommendations of Ahead of the Game in May 2010, it also announced the allocation of $38.7 million over three years to enable the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) to support the implementation of the reforms. But the APSC’s 2011–12 budget shows that its expenses ‘reduce in 2011–12 due to a decreasing level of funding for the APS reform Blueprint’. It will require a commitment from all agencies to bridge the gap. The ideals of citizens' engagement can only be realised where there is strong political and financial support.