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Call for ministerial advisers to be personally responsible

Accountability black hole ... Terry Moran says ministerial advisers need to be made personally accountable.

Accountability black hole ... Terry Moran says ministerial advisers need to be made personally accountable. Photo: Andrew Meares

One of the nation's most senior former bureaucrats is calling for the removal of the "accountability black hole” created by ministerial advisers, to make them personally accountable for their actions and answerable to parliamentary committees.

Terry Moran's suggestion is part of sweeping changes that he says are needed to create a 21st century public service.

Our current accountability systems do not work with ministerial advisers and the result is that they are becoming a black hole of accountability within our parliamentary democracy. 

Mr Moran has broad experience as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

In his current role as national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, he is urging the establishment of departmental boards of management that bring in outside expertise and skills to help departmental secretaries manage what are large and complex organisations.

He also wants:

  • to encourage public service leaders to speak publicly about long-term strategy in areas relevant to their department;
  • improvements in the way public services are planned and delivered, by increasing the skills base of the public service to cover areas common in the private sector including project management, cost-benefit analysis, innovation and organisational design; and
  • to build on Australia’s international reputation for the development of standard pricing models, in areas such as hospital care, that reward efficiency and that allow private providers to compete on a level playing field with the public sector.

Mr Moran's comments are published in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

"Australia has been well-served by its public administrators in the past; what we need now is take the next big steps in public service reform so that we can build on that record," he says.

"Our current accountability systems do not work with ministerial advisers and the result is that they are becoming a black hole of accountability within our parliamentary democracy.

"In the past, if a public servant told a ministerial adviser something it would be deemed that they had told the minister, and the adviser would make sure the minister knew.

"In turn, an adviser would speak with authority if they actually knew the minister’s wishes or had good reason to know what they would be.

"I don’t think you can legitimately say that this is still true today.

"No one can seriously suggest that an adviser is still an expression of the ‘persona’ of the minister.

"The result is that ministers can, and do, claim that they were unaware of particular issues because a briefing or discussion only involved their adviser and not them personally."

Mr Moran says ministerial advisers could be made more accountable for defined roles and become more answerable, in the same way as public servants are, to investigatory and accountability bodies, including parliamentary committees.

"If the prescribed roles and a code of conduct for ministerial staff were legislated, it would force ministers to employ people in their offices who were actually experienced in the business of government," he says.

"Without this change, advisers in some jurisdictions will continue to operate tactically in pursuit of short-term partisan interest and gain while on the public payroll.

"Ultimately this will be at a cost to the long-term, enduring national interest."

Mr Moran has played a major role in driving reforms to the Australian Public Service which included the Ahead of the Game report in March 2010.

5 comments so far

  • Maybe go back to using the Public service and have less hand-holders and hanger-on-ers around parliament. Get rid of ALL lobbyists while you are at it.
    Also, have the public service recruit and employ people who can then develop into effective managers rather than the political pressures now to tell ministers what they want to hear?

    Date and time
    April 16, 2013, 10:48AM
    • Get rid of ministerial advisers. They are mainly young party hopefuls with little or no life experience using the position as a stepping stone to their own political careers.

      It is the job of the public service to advise the Minister. Ministers should be given the information they need to know by the public service, not the information they want to hear from an adviser.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2013, 2:07PM
      • @Mike. Hear hear! Couldn't agree more. If anyone needs proof, you only need to look at Kevin Rudd's performance as PM. He was surrounded by advisers with little or no real world/life experience, yet they were putting the words in his mouth. He was also stupid enough to accept it. Put the responsibility back into the public service and make them accountable.

        Date and time
        April 17, 2013, 12:53AM
      • If young inexperienced staffers/advisers do not pass on advice that conflicts with their own ideology they are undermining their Ministers. Ministers make their own decisions and they deserve to have good independent advice from the public service. They also have Senior Ministerial Advisers with political nous to bring this advice together. If a Minister doesn't want independent advice in the decision making equation, that's their problem.

        Date and time
        April 17, 2013, 3:53AM
      • Totally agree Mike...I don't like Federal Labor, but one of the fundamental issues Labor has is the age of there Advisers ( life experience ), and I believe it all goes back to the Rudd era, were he and his Government surrounded them selves with youth. I think Rudds advisers were all under the age of 30. If the Federal Liberals are to get elected in September, Abbotts adviser Peta Gredlin has publicly said when it comes to advisers " I want to see a lot of grey hair in top positions " Not to turn the clock back as some Labor people would say, but purely for experience and that's something you can't have to much when it comes to governing.

        Martin Says
        Date and time
        April 17, 2013, 9:32AM

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