16 September 2023

Agriculture department needs to get much more proactive, capability review finds

| Chris Johnson
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Adam Fennessy

Incoming Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry secretary Adam Fennessy has inherited an agency needing to lift its game. Photo: File.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) is not sufficiently involved in core policy discussions despite having a highly engaged minister, according to an independent capability review of the agency.

DAFF needs to implement immediate changes, including a new governance framework, a more proactive leadership culture, and a sense of urgency to have a “seat at the policy table”.

The review, commissioned by the Federal Government and conducted by former and current senior-ranking public servants, commended the agency’s “highly specialised and committed staff”, but added that it needed to get its “house in order” for stakeholders to have confidence in it.

“DAFF reports to a single minister. This creates the ideal environment for strong and collaborative relationships with the minister and his office,” the report states.

“The minister is highly engaged, and senior staff report ongoing growth in their relationships with the minister and his staff.

“However, DAFF is also viewed as being absent from core discussions, and passive and reactive, rather than proactively engaging in setting critical policy priorities.

“By actively engaging with key players in areas of strategic importance to government and the community, DAFF will ensure the needs and aspirations of primary producers, importers and exporters, and other key stakeholders, are considered early in policy considerations.”

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Reviewers said the department needs to have the “networks, ability, trust and confidence” to convene interest groups with highly divergent views on issues such as sustainability, net zero emissions and food security.

DAFF has been “significantly affected” by multiple machinery of government changes over recent years.

This, along with increasing fiscal pressures and operational demands and the “high expectations of government”, means immediate change is required.

The review highlights priority areas the agency should focus on over the next six months. These include:

  • Establish a new system of governance with the senior leadership team collectively responsible for setting and clearly communicating enterprise-wide priorities, managing resource allocation and supporting effective decision-making;
  • Consolidate corporate, performance and assurance data and other management information to underpin effective decision-making and resource management;
  • Build a strong and proactive strategic policy capability with a focus on influencing and engaging on priority policy areas that meet the economic, environmental, social and governance needs of Australian communities; and
  • Commence the development of a strategic workforce plan, to build a fit-for-future workforce and support the sustainment of critical skills.

The department is seen as “very transactional, reactive and not actively engaged in whole-of-government priorities,” the review found.

The government’s priority areas include climate change, sustainability and First Nations engagement.

And longstanding financial management issues – including the standard of reporting and forecasting – need urgent attention.

“DAFF does not currently have the systems in place to reliably understand its financial circumstances at any given point in time,” the report said.

“It cannot reliably forecast how actual expenditure is tracking against estimates.”

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The report’s authors noted, however, that the short timeframe set for the review of just eight weeks did not allow enough time for them to focus on the more positive historical aspects of the agency’s capability.

Andrew Metcalfe recently retired as the department’s secretary and the government has announced the appointment of Adam Fennessy as his replacement.

Mr Fennessy starts his five-year term at the helm of the department on Monday (18 September).

DAFF acting secretary Cindy Briscoe, responding in the report, acknowledged the need for immediate improvements.

“We are committed to working with our incoming secretary on delivering an action plan that addresses the key priority areas identified in the report, including establishing a new system of governance focused on enterprise-wide priorities and decision-making, strategic workforce planning and development, strategic policy capability, and financial management,” Ms Briscoe said.

“Additionally, we will begin work on other identified reforms such as our service delivery and regulatory operating models, data capabilities, management information consolidation and digital systems.”

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