Former department head and ex adviser to prime minister Paul Keating Don Russell. Photo: Pat Scala
Former department head Don Russell says recommendations from the Audit Commission would strip the federal bureaucracy of much-needed independent oversight, introduce cosy relationships and conflicts of interest.
Mr Russell said the report's suggestion to roll the Public Service Commission into the Employment Department and give Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick's job to the education secretary "does not strike me as a particularly sensible change".
Mr Russell, a principal adviser to Paul Keating when he was prime minister and once ambassador to the United States, was sacked as secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research immediately after Tony Abbott became Prime Minister last September.
"We've given the commissioner more responsibility in recent years because someone has to be in a position to sit in judgment of their colleagues without a conflict of interest," Mr Russell said.
"You would effectively be handing over a human resources-industrial relations function (of the public service) to the department responsible for the industrial relations club."
Members of "the club" included the Fair Work Commission, employer groups and trade unions.
The public service commissioner recommends a secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Mr Russell said this "would not work" either if the commissioner also was the head of Employment.
The commission's job is to advise the government on succession planning and leadership roles in the bureaucracy, co-ordinate training and help attract high-calibre staff to the public service as well as foster positive work environments and workplace integrity.
It is understood some of the 250 staff within the commission were shocked after the audit report's controversial suggestions were released last Thursday.
The report said the Employment Department, which had expertise in workplace relations and employment conditions, could take on these responsibilities as well as the professional development of the senior executive service.
Other training services could be procured by the Department of Finance and remaining obligations could be picked up by individual agencies and departments.
Even though the report noted the importance of a centralised agency such as the Public Service Commission to help the bureaucracy move towards standardised conditions across the public sector, it also said this took away some flexibility from individual agencies.
Mr Russell was cautious about the Audit Commission's recommendation for the Department of Finance to do more systematic reviews of programs being run by departments.
He said departments needed an incentive to voluntarily cut back or modify programs. If they did that at the moment the funding they had saved would be taken from them.
"Otherwise it could be seen as a fishing expedition by the Finance Department to find savings," Mr Russell said.
"At the moment the Department of Finance has a hunting culture, a savings culture."
Mr Russell was disappointed the report appeared to be silent on the problem of having skills and science separate from research and universities in terms of responsibilities given to departments.
The Department of Industry looks after science and skills while the Department of Education oversees research and higher education.
Mr Russell highlighted in a speech in March that vocational education, such as TAFEs, was dealt with by the Industry Department while the Education Department dealt with policy affecting university students.
"An indicator of the dimensions of the problem is the fact that 90 of the 170 higher education providers registered by TEQSA, the university regulator, are jointly registered with ASQA, the VET regulator," he said.