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Don Russell urges chiefs to flex muscles and 'save the APS'

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey meeting with senior advisors, including Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson and Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Ian Watt.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey meeting with senior advisors, including Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson and Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Ian Watt. Photo: Andrew Meares

Public service bosses must save Australia's public policy from the ''dishevelled'' and ''untidy'' decision-making of political staff, a former departmental chief says.

Don Russell, sacked as secretary of the Industry Department in one of the Abbott government's first acts, said the public service must reclaim its place in government decision-making.

Dr Don Russell: "What is needed is sophisticated and well-considered decision making."

Dr Don Russell: "What is needed is sophisticated and well-considered decision making." Photo: Pat Scala

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Dr Russell said his former colleagues at the top of the public service were to blame for being locked out of the process. He said departmental secretaries had allowed the rot to set in and were responsible for fixing the problem.

Dr Russell, one of several victims of the Coalition's ''night of the short knives'' in September, told an audience in Canberra on Monday evening that it was now common for government decisions to be taken in ministers' offices, with the relevant departments reduced to bystanders.

''Such a dishevelled approach makes governments look untidy and confused,'' Dr Russell said. ''But, more importantly, it stops governments achieving the outcomes they want - they make decisions without all the information and without fully understanding the consequences.

''It may seem harsh but much responsibility for this unfortunate situation lies with departmental secretaries.''

Dr Russell's talk at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy was the first public appearance of any of the victims of September's purge of senior officials.

Andrew Metcalfe was sacked from the Department of Agriculture and Blair Comley bundled out of the Resources Department. On the same day, the director-general of AusAID, Peter Baxter, went on ''extended leave'' just hours before the abolition of his agency was made public and Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson agreed to step down midyear.

On Monday, Dr Russell offered Prime Minister Tony Abbott some advice - he should rely more on the public service if he was to build a proud political legacy.

''What is needed is sophisticated and well-considered decision-making,'' Dr Russell said. ''Ministers and prime ministers should have the wisdom to appreciate that nobody builds a respected legacy on the back of a confused collection of reactive press releases and disjointed policy announcements.

''Politics is a relative profession - you only have to be better than your opponent - but a legacy is absolute.

''All political careers end badly and to answer the question 'what did it all mean?' you have to have done things that left the nation a better place.''

But nothing would change until the men and women who run the public service flex their muscles, Dr Russell warned.

''Secretaries have more authority than they think,'' he said.

''They can build imaginative institutions that ministers want to consult and they themselves can be effective advocates, encouraging their ministers to do sensible things that are good for the minister and good for the nation.

''At the risk of feeding the cult of the secretary, I can say that only the secretaries can save the APS.

''But, at the end of the day, prime ministers determine how government runs in Canberra.''

16 comments

  • Interesting comments - and could I ask that before anyone posts "sour grapes" you go and actually read the Aesop's Fable referencing the same?

    Commenter
    JohnLT
    Date and time
    April 01, 2014, 6:33AM
    • Perhaps Don is being a little too unnuanced in his analysis. No discussion of bureaucratic inertia, departmental turf wars and institutional agendas? Surely not! Departments have also presented some pretty untidy and dishevelled work for their political masters, despite the alleged value-adding and spell-checking by several layers of overpaid senior managers.

      Commenter
      Axel
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:36AM
      • Why was Russell himself so compliant during the endless mismanagements of the Rudd-Gillard/Brown-Rudd governments? Bit rich for him to come out now to lecture departmental secretaries to do their jobs.

        Commenter
        Nulla
        Date and time
        April 01, 2014, 8:04AM
        • Cue the typical anti-Rudd and Gillard rant..... And Brown was never part of a government so a bit off track there aren't we?

          Commenter
          RedFred
          Date and time
          April 01, 2014, 9:17AM
        • Cue the cuers

          Commenter
          WhiteFred
          Date and time
          April 01, 2014, 12:01PM
      • Sadly, the position of departmental head has been substantially devalued by the Liberal/National Coalition in their aim to completely subdue "the frank and fearless advice".

        LNP don't want frank and fearless - all they want is to dictate to each government department what they want and they want departmental heads to cow-tow to them and do their bidding. My guess is that the Labor side also practiced this to some extent and Rudd would have enjoyed this immensley.

        The public service is no longer a-political because of this devaluation, and because nearly all the appointments to departmental head have been political appointments and the frank and fearless advice no longer exists and it's no longer wanted either.

        The current offloading of public servants will only diminish the quality of these staff, and what it will end up with is a lot of yes-men/women who won't be there for the long-haul.

        Bad decisions are most often made by people who have no ownership or control of their job or their decisions.

        Both the government of the day and the general voting public should be aware of this.

        Commenter
        spikeyhair
        Location
        macgregor
        Date and time
        April 01, 2014, 9:01AM
        • I think what he's saying is that Secretaries and Executives should do their jobs and give 'frank and fearless advice' as they supposed to. I could just see Tony Abbott and his cronies accepting that. LOL.

          Commenter
          Felix
          Location
          ACT
          Date and time
          April 01, 2014, 9:16AM
          • This argument assumes they know what they are doing and I never saw much evidence that any of them did. Usually if they have a range of options they always go with the worst one.

            Commenter
            Jolly Roger
            Date and time
            April 01, 2014, 9:50AM
            • MP have their own agenda. Bugger the majority of voters. They just say "make it so".

              Commenter
              Hardarse
              Date and time
              April 01, 2014, 9:56AM
              • So, why is that current Ministers and their advisers aren't so keen for the assistance of this mythical creature - the prefessional, informed, apolitical public service? Could it be that the blatant politicisation of the public service has become irrritatingly undemocratic to the point of frustrating an elected government's efforts to pursue its agenda? Could it be that the cumulative impact of many years of 'jobs for your mates' has resulted in the service being often neither professional (we're all generalists now, aren't we) nor informed? Could it be that there is such a lack of accountability in the public service that the senior eschelons are completely unreliable? Stranger things have come to pass.

                Commenter
                the house the public servants built
                Date and time
                April 01, 2014, 10:06AM

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