Governing through uncertainty: Three lessons from Australia

Governing through uncertainty: Three lessons from Australia


The United Kingdom is in a state of flux. The UK’s future relationship with the European Union is unclear and the major parties offer distinct visions for UK’s future.

The public sector’s role in finding answers to these big questions can make it easy to ignore its continuing roles in delivering sound government and ensuring continuous improvements for the British people. But these jobs still need doing.

The focus on Brexit can also make it hard to find time to think strategically about the role of the public sector and how it can best support the government of the day to deliver its programme. Looking to other countries’ experiences is therefore a good way to figure out what reforms might work best for Britain.

Nous Group is the largest Australian-founded management consulting firm and we have a strong and growing international reputation, including in the UK. We focus on public policy work and on helping public sector and public purpose organisations develop and implement strategies that align their business to new and emerging priorities.

This gives us insight into how the UK’s and Australia’s fundamentally similar institutions have diverged and the lessons which both the UK in general and its public sector in particular can take from the parallel Australian experience – both its successes and failures.

Nous has worked with Australian governments to confront challenges, explore opportunities, and answer questions from organisational strategy through to approaches to policy development and evaluation. In this context, we have asked three of our Australian experts to work with our UK team to set out their perspectives on how Australia’s experiences can inform the UK public sector’s preparations for and activities after Brexit.

Their reflections move from higher-level considerations of how to structure government departments in a changing world through to the process of regulatory design and a specific example of Australia’s policy settings. Each piece finds similarities and differences between the British and Australian experiences and explores how the Australian experience can inform the UK government’s next steps. They explore:

  1. How can we align public sector, programmes, structures and functions with enduring government priorities?
  2. How can we most effectively develop and maintain regulation which meets different stakeholder groups’ needs?
  3. What should the UK consider when looking toward Australia’s points-based immigration system?

British government departments and agencies have had the same basic shape and functions for a long time, even as their missions and priorities evolve. By contrast, Australian government departments undergo frequent ‘machinery of government’ changes. For example, the Australian department for industry has had six different forms in the past decade— adding, subtracting, and re-adding functions including innovation, science, research, tertiary education, and climate change.

Such changes, which often follow general elections, can renew a sense of purpose and create new synergies. But they can also cause demarcation issues, inefficiencies and misalignments.

Partly to address this and partly to identify more substantive savings after a long period of ‘shaving off the top’ the Australian government introduced a programme of functional and efficiency review for every department. A similar programme, assessing the strategic alignment between government priorities, functions, expenditure and structures would benefit the UK – especially as it takes on new or retuned responsibilities from the EU.

The benefits of a strategic review and reassessment are notable in relation to regulatory policy. The UK faces the complex challenge of disentangling itself from the EU’s regulatory regimes, of which it has been a part for over 40 years.

Throughout this time, Australia has evolved its own regulatory policies in line with changing market conditions, international agreements, customer and citizen need, and perceptions of risk. Australia’s federal system requires state, territory, and local governments to adopt their own regulatory policies and practices to meet local needs. Australian regulators have therefore developed different ways to account for different contexts while aligning to the overarching legislative and policy intent.

This breadth of experience, and the different ways in which Australian regulators have succeeded in (and failed in) responding to regulatory challenges can inform UK regulators as they come to terms with new responsibilities and inherited regulatory structures.

Immigration has been a major theme in the UK’s debates around Europe. Proponents of change have pointed to the Australian points-based immigration system as a path forward for the UK’s future immigration system. Critical engagement with the Australian policy’s strengths and weaknesses, and exploring how it aligns with Australian government priorities, will help British policy-makers make better judgements about how to design the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system.

Nous has British and Australian experience working with government at each of these levels. As the UK looks to the opportunities, and confronts the challenges, of a post-Brexit policy environment, lessons from a parallel jurisdiction will prove increasingly valuable. Nous can help you to ensure that these lessons translate into impactful policy, organisational, and regulatory changes in the UK.

You can read our full series on lessons for the UK on governing through uncertainty.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can help your organisation navigate a pathway forward.