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.