Former Industry Department secretary Don Russell: "a mistake for departments to underestimate the importance of their policy advice.''

Former Industry Department secretary Don Russell: "a mistake for departments to underestimate the importance of their policy advice.'' Photo: Pat Scala

"How do you find your minister?" I asked conversationally of the senior public servant.

"Oh, no one ever sees him,"  the public servant replied. "We only ever see the advisers. Anything for or from the minister comes through them."

Thirty years ago, this would have been a somewhat shocking and worrying thing – though by no means unknown. I can, for example, think of a minister of that era who had a staffer who was in every respect the minister, often making decisions on the minister’s behalf on the trot without consulting or (sometimes it seemed even informing) him. That minister had some reputation for playing no-speaks even with departmental heads. But the staffer had a Commonwealth Directory allowing him to reach deep into the department, asking for information in the minister’s name, and, often making the minister’s wishes or general policy clear. There was no suspicion of corruption, but a good many public servants seriously wondered whether the minister was playing to the minder’s agenda, or vice versa, or what. And some suspected, accurately as it turned out, that some of the requests for detailed information involved scholarly research for a future PhD.

Today, by contrast, the direct access of public servants, even at the most senior levels, to ministers is quite restricted. The layers of ministerial staff, advisers, consultants, spin doctors and others are often deliberately keeping the public service at bay. This does not suggest that the command relationship between minister (or those speaking on his behalf) and public service has faltered: a steady flow of orders, ideas and decisions flows outwards, in some rough relationship at least, to the material flowing in. Nor is the potential for deniability the reason.

Nor does it mean that the quality or quantity of the formal flow of written and oral advice to ministerial officers is declining, that it is less frank and fearless, or that the views of neutral, professional and detached advisers are missing when decisions are made. The people are missing, but not their advice.

The effect depends on the quality of the advisers. Some are said to be very good. A good many public servants to whom I speak think that the Abbott government is somewhat more conscientious about a sense of partnership with the public service, and correct and professional in managing the relationships than the previous administration. It helps enormously that this new government is peppered with politicians of previous administrative experience, but also with minders and advisers who had previously worked in ministerial offices. There are still legions of young "suits",  as young, bumptious, inexperienced in practical government and at least initially as suspicious of and hostile to bureaucrats as fresh minders of legend are. These are, as ever, focused and ambitious and intensely political, and hoping that a period of insiderness will set up the next steps in their careers.

The hothouse of Parliament House suits the suits. But there are others who have a life, some wisdom, and even some experience in a wider world.

The fear for the public service is being completely frozen out. It is that it is not there when the critical debates are occurring and the critical decisions are being made. These are debates being rehearsed in the minister’s office, and later between ministers’ offices – and, sometimes, but not always in cabinet or in the formal and informal committees – particularly at the moment budgetary ones. The business of testing arguments with economic and political considerations – indeed, a good deal of the old co-ordination discussions between agencies that mirrored cabinet debates, have now, in effect, been subcontracted out to ministerial offices. And, some would say, even that development is being progressively subverted by the increasing presidential power, control and co-ordination of a prime minister’s office.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of public service initiative and imagination, as well as policy and program drive, has shifted with it. Absence means they  have voluntarily surrendered a good deal of the policy agenda. Sometimes cheerfully, because it involves politics, dirty deals, compromises and the abuse of those who have missed out when the goodies are being distributed.

Don Russell, who was sacked by Tony Abbott at the change of government, presumably because he was seen as an openly Labor person, is a person with considerable experience, and not a little wisdom, in the changing shifts in power. He was a Treasury economist. He was chief of staff to Paul Keating as prime minister - including when the Keating office became accused of being a choke point in government. He was an effective Australian ambassador to the United States. And, after a spell in private finance when Howard came in, he was brought back to head the Industry Department during the Labor government.

This week he was describing how he sought to improve that agency's clout in debate by seeking to make it an economic portfolio focused on innovation - there when the cake was being cut up, rather than waiting for crumbs for subsidies. But it his reflection on the changing public service that are especially interesting - and not in the least party partisan.

''The wise secretary realises early on that advice to ministers is contestable,'' he said on Tuesday.

''If departmental advice is to have influence it has to be useful. It is a mistake to think that the department's main influence comes from creating the piece of paper that cannot be ignored.

''It is true that you should never underestimate the power of the written word, but if the department is only viewed as having a capacity to hem in a minister, then over time the department will find itself frozen out and more and more decisions will be taken late at night in ministers' offices.

''Departments should be able to provide advice on any subject within the minister's responsibilities that is better structured and better considered than anything that can be produced in the minister's office. The department has resources; the adviser tends to be on his or her own.

''The missing ingredient that holds back departmental advice is imagination.

''We have to create an APS where departments become ideas factories; ideas that have been properly researched and tested and that are only looking for objectives and values to be harnessed by the minister or government of the day.

''Ministers should take advice from their departments not because they have to but because they want to. And it is a mistake for departments to underestimate the importance of policy advice.

''Most of the APS is involved with compliance, regulation or implementing programs. But ministers are largely unaware of this. They tend to judge a department by its policy advice capabilities.

''It is also a bad outcome for ministers if departments believe that the minister and the minister's office have policy under control and that they should simply wait to be told how to implement it.

''The secretary has a key leadership role to play in all of this. Departments should be thinking ahead, anticipating crises that should not be wasted, and waiting for their moment to be useful.

''It is easier for the PM to sleep at night if he or she knows that ministers are being properly advised by a competent and properly co-ordinated APS.''

Jack Waterford is editor at large.

jack.waterford@canberratimes.com.au