The Susan McKinnon Foundation has a vision for Australia’s publicly funded services to be world class. Public servants who manage frontline services need to be empowered and incentivised to deliver better outcomes for taxpayers and users of government services, delivering excellent value for money for governments.
Expectations about public service delivery are changing. While the non-market public services sector may have traditionally been perceived as a passive vehicle for delivery, increasingly the expectation is that it improves and reforms over time. Politicians and public servants want to save money, deliver value, and restore public trust – and want to know how. The latest Productivity Commission report argues that Australia urgently needs to realise productivity gains in the non-market, human services sector.
This program area seeks to identify and use levers for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of publicly funded services. Currently, SMF is focused on two main levers, both of which have significant potential for improving the productivity of the non-market sector: innovations in public sector management, and innovations in training the frontline workforce.
Innovations in Public Sector Management
In partnership with Prof Gary Sturgess AM, SMF has been studying success stories in the delivery of public services (e.g. a prison, statewide pathology service), where NSW public servants have delivered greatly improved services at a significantly lower cost to government. These improvements have been achieved through taking a ‘business unit approach’, with a focus on delegated authority but also increased accountability of frontline management. We are using insights derived from this research as a basis for government engagement and a platform for influencing a strategy to drive productivity improvements in service delivery.
There are other good examples of non-market service sector innovations that have led to marked improvements (nationally and internationally) that could provide a roadmap for other comparable services. Yet, these success stories do not have a high profile. In fact, frontline service delivery in general attracts little attention from government and researchers, so there is a limited accessible evidence base. Further, decision-makers do not know how to access learnings from successful reforms: in their own jurisdiction, other Australian jurisdictions, or from overseas.
The result is that important lessons are not being harnessed, and learnings are going to waste.
This project involves continued efforts to build a practical and accessible evidence base through case studies of other exemplars and approaches that change the way non-market human services are managed and delivered in order to achieve better outcomes and better value.
Innovations in Training the Frontline Workforce
This project focuses on an emerging hypothesis: that there is a gap between the way Australia is training crucial frontline public sector workforces, and the way we need these workforces to operate.
The evidence suggests that many tertiary-trained frontline workers, such as teachers and social workers, are not sufficiently equipped to deliver efficient and effective human services when they enter the workforce. When these crucial workforces do not graduate with the skills they need to deliver high-quality publicly funded human services, low productivity and poor outcomes are more likely. Improving the quality of practical experience and teaching was identified as a key priority in the recent report from the Teacher Education Expert Panel.
Emerging evidence points to simulation-based learning as a possible ‘bridge’ between the lecture theatre and the practical education that student teachers receive in schools. Immersive simulation-based learning engages students in physical or virtual lifelike experiences that mimic real-world encounters. Research on skills-based training approaches for other professions (particularly in health, e.g. nursing, medicine) shows that simulation-based learning improves professional knowledge, skills and behaviours, and even patient outcomes.
Yet, simulation-based learning is not the norm in initial education for teachers or social workers in Australia. Further, many Australian education and accreditation standards do not require any simulation-based learning. This points to a ‘know-do’ gap in Australia that risks having negative impacts on the effectiveness and efficiency of fundamental public services like social services and education.
SMF has funded Monash University and has commissioned Impact Economics and Policy to undertake scoping research in initial social worker and teacher education respectively to further investigate the effectiveness of simulation-based learning for these professions, and to explore implementation and scale considerations in the Australian tertiary training context.