JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Public servants should not lightly surrender policy pre-eminence

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Public servants should not lightly surrender policy pre-eminence to the minders in ministerial offices.

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

11 comments

  • Public servant bashing has been a popular Australian past-time for many years. It has been used as the basis for justifying privatization of public enterprises by the conservatives. And that privatization seems to have helped their political parties. The claim that private enterprise is more efficient at running businesses is a furphy. It is easy to make a profit with a business, if you buy it cheap and exploit the infrastructure to the max. The reason that government enterprises cost more to run starts at the top with the minister, and the way the decisions are politicized. In many cases the government enterprises operate with one hand tied behind their backs, prohibited from competing on a level playing field due to lobbying from private companies. Recently Eric Abetz mentioned that we have strong manufacturing companies in Victoria. As an example he mentioned the Boeing Aircraft Facility at Fishermans' Bend. It is the bonding facility which was part of the Government Aircraft Factory, originally set up at taxpayers' expense, handed to Boeing who are now exploiting it. The work they are doing in bonding aircraft panels could easily have been done when the factory was in government hands. Politics stopped that from happening. Also the private company Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation which was right next door was 'the barnacle on the arse of progress'.

    Commenter
    adam
    Location
    yarrawonga
    Date and time
    April 02, 2014, 7:52AM
    • Interesting adam, the reality is when Government enterprises are privatised they generally take off like a rocket, look at Telstra and Commonwealth Bank for instance. They are no longer hampered with the chains of beauracy.

      Commenter
      Lionheart
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 8:04AM
      • Lionheart all organisations need some form of bureaucracy. The Nestle CEO once said an organisation without bureaucracy is an organisation without bones. It gives structure. Too much and it can't move, too little and it has lack of control.

        The difference is private enterprise have less accountability. Public enterprise needs to be accountable and as such need to follow more processes, more checks and balances and hence more "red tape".

        It's not the fault of the PS that they are slow or tied up in process. The general public demand accountability and as such it makes the PS slower!

        Commenter
        Nick
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 10:19AM
      • Lionheart and so they should being what they are so they should but they were doing alright before as well. So what is your point so because they are private enterprise they are doing better no both have a low client satisfaction as too how they look after their clients. They have both been looked after by the goverment and the taxpayers of this country.

        Commenter
        Wayne
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 10:32AM
      • Thank you Nick for a sense of reality. If private enterprise was subjected to the amount of accountability and scrutiny that the public service has to work with, no business could survive. The public believes there is much red tape - they should try and function inside the service. Every action and decision can be the subject of multiple courses of appeal and scrutiny. Over the years the public and successive governments have demanded this of the service and for years the ability to get the work done efficiently has suffered.

        Commenter
        Dee2
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 12:10PM
    • Government authorities are not all bad and private enterprise is not all good.

      Look at all the privatisation of water, electricity, gas, airlines, telecoms and banks over the years and count the real cost. We no longer have strategic maintence programmes or long term terms of what is good for the public.

      Rather it is profit driven at the expense of infrastructure. Becuase, at the end of the day, the Government will cough up the readies to rebuild key infrastructure.

      Commenter
      Saladin
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 11:37AM
      • The home insulation inquiry is instructive here. While the pressure from Ministers and advisers took its toll, the bureaucrats must also take some responsibility for Plan B, the dangerous implementation model, and not being forthright enough when it went pear-shaped.

        Commenter
        kyoto kapers
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 12:14PM
        • There is, particularly in the State Public service a tendency to "capture" the Minister and effectively exclude him/her from any other advice than the Departmental view. Internally these Departments run their own policy concepts and, by virtue of their control of recruitment and favourable "consultancy" contracts become incestuous in their thinking. There is a need for external checks and balances whether by Ministerial advisors, regrettably young and brash, or by advisory panels drawn from the wider and more experienced ranks of intelligent sceptics outside public service ranks.

          Commenter
          MFL
          Date and time
          April 02, 2014, 2:12PM
          • Resources for and appreciation of thinking, researching, imagining and testing would be a dream for public policy writers and advisers.

            Commenter
            Lisa
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            April 02, 2014, 2:23PM
            • The term is Public Servant not, Political Servant. Public servants should not be constrained from doing their job ethically and effectively to cater to the sensibilities of the current government's agenda.

              Commenter
              comment
              Date and time
              April 02, 2014, 3:40PM

              More comments

              Comments are now closed
              Featured advertisers

              Special offers

              Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo