National

Former PM&C secretary urges public servants to be frank and fearless

Former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Peter Shergold has blamed major policy failing on the public service's inability to provide frank and fearless advice to ministers.

In a wide-ranging review of government processes, Professor Shergold said the federal bureaucracy must learn from the ill-fated home insulation program and problems associated with the National Broadband Network.

Professor Peter Shergold believes the Australian public service must learn from its mistakes.
Professor Peter Shergold believes the Australian public service must learn from its mistakes.  Photo: Wayne Taylor

According to Professor Shergold, both programs were compromised by the inability of public servants to provide robust advice, to keep records of key decisions and to express concerns in writing.

"Public servants did not draw sufficiently on external views and expertise and the partial evidence they did muster was unable to exert influence through its advice to ministers," he said.

"There was a failure to provide sufficiently frank and forthright advice to ministers on important elements of policy design and risk.

"There was a significant gap between the inadequate levels of candour displayed in written advice and that reportedly conveyed in oral briefings."

Professor Shergold, who made 28 recommendations to improve the quality of the public service, said ministers frequently bemoaned the quality of advice they received.

"There have been recurrent complaints over recent years from ministers about their departments' apparent lack of innovative ideas and inadequate standard of advice," he said.

"This may not be the experience or perspective of most ministers, but it is a complaint that I have frequently heard."

Professor Shergold said the federal government's home insulation scheme, launched by the Rudd government in February 2009, was plagued by "massive failures" and weak advice from departments.

 "It is apparent that the advice provided by public servants to ministers was, in many instances, poorly given, poorly received and poorly communicated," he said.

"Consultation across government, between jurisdictions and with industry bodies was all but absent"

The report, presented to the government in August but published by the Australian Public Service Commission on Friday, was commissioned the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

Professor Shergold said providing frank and fearless advice was often complicated by a desire to preserve good working relationships with ministers.

"Public service advice is vital to good government and, to this end, secretaries should be held accountable for the quality of advice provided to ministers by their departments," he said.

As part of his recommendations, Shergold called for the bureaucracy to be "opened up" to take advantage of skills in the private and community sectors.

"Public servants should be actively encouraged to undertake periods of relevant work in companies, social enterprises or universities," he said.

"There is significant advantage in enabling people to stand in the shoes of others, appreciating the different constraints under which they operate, and learning new approaches."

Mr Shergold said he admired and respected the public service and had listened empathetically to feedback on criticisms listed in the report.  

"While I have not shied away from frankness in acknowledging its past failures, I hope that the conclusions at which I have arrived will help the process of improving the manner in which the Australian public service wields its significant power in the future," he said.