Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick offers his thoughts on the latest State of the Service Report in this month's Informant. (And, once again, the report sets a high standard for quality, detail and honesty.) This year, Sedgwick highlighted the need for public servants to be seen as impartial, especially in their public comments.
This was partly due to the kerfuffle caused by former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet employee James Button's revealing book Speechless, which tells of his time as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd. After it was published, Sedgwick and PM&C secretary Ian Watt issued a joint statement to express their "regret and disappointment ... that Mr Button has published details of conversations with the former prime minister. The unauthorised disclosure of such conversations is, in our view, corrosive to the relationship of trust that must exist between ministers and the APS."
Yet former PM&C secretary Professor Peter Shergold, who has reviewed the book, dismisses concerns about Button's commentary as a "furphy". Shergold says: "Button does not do disservice, still less breach public service guidelines, by writing his account. It's not apparent that he attended many high-level meetings at which, behind closed doors, public servants gave advice to their political masters. Certainly he breaches the confidences of none."
Public Eye asked Sedgwick last week about this clash of opinion. He replied: "Some of us have the responsibility to lead the service at the moment and we feel quite deeply - and it's a view that is shared across the leadership group - that it's about the importance of ministers and others being able to trust the service with sensitive information ... We're very strong on this notion, no matter who it is: if it's a minister giving you their view in a private conversation or if it's a work colleague ... One of the things James Button said in the book, for example, was that he was talking to all these very senior people and he was surprised that he wasn't told that the conversation was on background. Well, der!"
Rising costs of freedom
A year ago, Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan expressed disappointment that the bureaucracy spent $5 million on freedom of information-related legal fees in 2010-11 (which equated to about $1 in every $7 spent administering the FoI Act). He suggested that "spending your open-government budget on legal fees does not sit well with open-government objectives".
Alas, the lawyers have won again. McMillan's latest report shows agencies spent $6.5 million on FOI-related legal advice and litigation last financial year, a rise of 31 per cent on 2010-11.
Very small agencies were understandably the worst offenders, as they tend to receive few FOI requests and are thus more reliant on solicitors. Of larger workplaces, though, the biggest spenders were the Taxation Office ($3607 per request), the Broadband Department ($3596) and PM&C ($2633).
Public Eye offers praise, however, to AusAID and the Environment Department, both of which managed to significantly scale back their charitable offerings to the legal profession. We dream, rather than hope, of a less cautious approach in future years.
Anti-social gift idea
Public Eye fell out of our sockets last month when we heard the latest workplace jargon used by some senior public servants: socialise. As in: Good idea, let's socialise it. It's apparently meant to mean share or discuss with others. We trust that anyone who hears the word used that way immediately tears out the speaker's larynx to stop this nonsense spreading.
The late editor of political newsletter Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn, died this year just after he finished writing a "broadside against the corruption of the English language". His 31-page booklet, Guillotined, ends with a list of offending phrases - some dead metaphors, some rarely used correctly and others that never had meaning - which he calls "The Condemned".
Our favourites: sustainable, iconic, expensed, leveraged, governance, at the end of the day, stake-holder, unpack, clos-ure, looking forward, arguably, speaking truth to power and many more. What's wrong with them? The booklet explains the evil of each. It also makes for a cheap Christmas gift.