Public service middle managers whose ranks have been thinned by cuts need to do more and have had too much of their responsibility shifted to their bosses, says Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.
At his first major public speech, Mr Lloyd said executive level 1 and 2 staff were not making enough decisions or giving enough advice.
He said a more risk-averse bureaucracy existed than it did a decade ago, which may have led to the responsibility shifting.
"We are concerned too much of the work has drifted up," Mr Lloyd said.
"We have to make sure control and decision making doesn't constantly drift up."
The need for cultural change comes at a difficult time for middle managers whose jobs have been cut more than any other classifications.
EL1s, the most severely hit, have made up as much as half the voluntary redundancies at some large Commonwealth employers.
One audience member at the speech at the National Portrait Gallery suggested to Mr Lloyd that public servants were probably risk averse because of the penalties if they made an error of judgment.
Mr Lloyd said this could be because of a large number of watchdogs and "very pernicious" freedom of information laws .
FOI laws allow members of the public to request documents that can show decision-making processes and, in doing so, show where mistakes may have been made. Some within the public service see them as too onerous.
"[FOI laws] have gone a bit further than what they were intended to," he said.
Mr Lloyd said the federal public service was too introspective and needed to consult more with private businesses.
He gave the example of Melbourne and Sydney needing more quarries to expand their number of construction projects in line with population growth, but it took 10 to 13 years to make a quarry operational because of red tape. This led to investors quietly taking their money out of Australia.
He said the public service again proved its value and efficiency by its response to the recent cyclone in Queensland.
Centrelink payments were organised quickly and shipping and air safety were managed well.