In defence of the overly maligned apparatchiki

Show comments

Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott's recent speech on public services at the Institute of Public Administration's conference was ignorant, dangerous and arrogant.

Get more of the latest news on the public service, from theĀ Public Sector Informant.

It was ignorant because, while lecturing about the importance of good policy being ''backed by evidence'', Westacott did not bother to bring any factual evidence (apart from a few generalised scraps on government regulation) or significant analysis to bear in support of her prescriptions. She simply heaps loads of dreary cliches on top of blithe assertions; the result is inevitable. It's to be hoped that this species of shallow analysis doesn't characterise the Business Council's dealings with governments.

It was dangerous because Westacott sees public servants as having a ''custodianship of the long-term policy agenda''. This may come as a surprise to those who believe Australia has a democratic system where the ''long-term policy agenda'' is decided on by those they elect to government. Public servants are there to provide the best, most comprehensive and honest advice and support they can, but if that happens not to gel with governments' conceptions of the ''policy agenda'', they must bow to the will of the people as expressed via elected representatives. It's too bad if that doesn't fit with an idealised view of the public interest as seen from the lofty heights of the Business Council's boardroom. Democracy's benefits are not costless but the system can be self-correcting.

And Westacott's paper was arrogant as many of her prescriptions are arbitrary, none more so than her suggestion that the number of ministerial staff should be reduced by half. There's no indication she's tried to assess workloads in ministers' offices or consulted the excellent 2009 report on ministerial staff numbers by experienced public servant Alan Henderson, which is wholly at odds with her lazy prescription. She's simply turned a blind eye to the evidence. Nevertheless, her call is backed by a former senior public servant, Ken Baxter, who can't resist maligning ministerial staff as ''intellectual rabbits with big ears''. The Westacott-Baxter assertions are as empty as a bankrupt's pie and they leave no uncertainty about who should be wearing rabbits' ears.

Westacott has promoted a false sense of crisis about Australian public administration and in doing so she's thrown some off course. The former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, is reported as saying she has ''nailed some of the biggest challenges facing our system of government''. She's done no such thing and her paper doesn't warrant a place in the consideration of Australian politics and public administration other than as a bracing example of bad form.


Ministerial staff are at the centre of the furore Westacott has caused. She says public servants' ''authority has been undermined by political gatekeepers'' and that consequent ''frustration from the lowest to the highest levels of seniority is palpable in every conversation I have''. But let's bring just a couple of facts to bear on her anecdotal memories. In the Public Service Commission's latest State of the Service report, 63 per cent of senior staff said they had no difficulty in balancing their various responsibilities in dealing with ministers and their offices. About one in three said they had, but that's unsurprising and it might reasonably be presumed that most of those difficulties could be easily resolved. If there's a problem, it would seem to be on the side of the senior public servants, 46 per cent of whom said they'd not heard of the ministerial code of conduct. Is it any wonder these people have difficulties in dealing with ministers' offices when they are unaware of an important means for avoiding or dealing with those difficulties?

An important part of the role of ministerial staff is to organise access to their ministers. Sometimes, they will make mistakes and cause difficulties for public servants, but Westacott has almost certainly exaggerated the problem. Political leaders have always employed gatekeepers. For most of former United States president Woodrow Wilson's second term in office, when he was quite ill, hardly anyone was admitted to his presence without his wife's say so. Few got in and she virtually ran the country. In Australia 40 years ago, then prime minister John Gorton's chief of staff strictly controlled who saw him. Gatekeeper difficulties are more likely to be the product of personalities and circumstances than the number of staff in a minister's office.

Further, in an oblique way, Westacott implies that ministerial offices are contributing to the ''unravelling'' of policy. Well, the Australian National Audit Office has stamped all over that, saying: ''In conducting our performance audits, the ANAO recognises that ministerial staffers generally act as a conduit between departments and the minister. However, our audits have not identified any specific issues with ministerial staff in this process.''

But Westacott has prompted regular Informant columnist J. R. Nethercote to make some observations on ministerial staff and the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act - see his well-crafted article in last month's Informant.

Nethercote is a serious student of politics and public administration, on which he was written widely and edited numerous books. He is fondly remembered for editing and developing the Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, the best such publication of its kind Australia has had. Its successor, Public Administration Today, is but a pale shadow, notwithstanding its glossy photographs and recommendations about restaurants. The next time you're in Hobart, apparently, you'd be a mug not to roll up to Fish Frenzy in Sullivan's Cove. According to Public Administration Today, the Frenzy has ''arguably the best fish and chips in Australia'' - big raps indeed (no pun intended).

The point is that Nethercote's views on public administration deserve to be taken seriously, so let's recap on what he's said about ministerial staff. He reckons there's ''an increasingly strong case for reviewing the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act'' because:

Gatekeeper difficulties are more likely to be the product of personalities and circumstances than the number of staff in a minister's office.

  • It ''is now getting on to 30 years old''.
  • It ''has always suffered from a confusion, lumping ministers (executive branch) in with parliamentarians (legislative branch)''. Further, ''there should be separate acts for both branches''.
  • The ''rationale for separating ministerial staff from the minister's department is misconceived''.
  • Ministerial ''gatekeepers'' are an ''impediment to ministers taking control of their departments''.
  • Except for ''major figures'', ministers should be limited to not more than five staff ''with some provision to engage experts''.
  • The ''routine work of the ministerial private office would be carried out by departmental staff''.

What's to be made of this?

First, mere longevity is not a satisfactory basis for deciding whether to review anything. Reviews should be undertaken when needs suggest, whether a thing be one or 50 years of age. A besetting problem with modern public administration is that there are too many reviews, only some of which are decided on the basis of need and many of which are useless.

Second, it's difficult to see exactly what confusion arises from ministers and other members of Parliament using the same legal power to employ staff. Both authorities are primarily members of the legislative branch and a relatively small number become and cease to be ministers from time to time. In some respects, they employ like grades of staff in both their electorate and Canberra offices. It's hard to imagine that an act for ministers and an act for other MPs would look much different in its essential employing power. And confusion could easily arise when ministers become backbenchers or backbenchers become ministers where, presumably, they would need to re-employ some of their staff if there were two acts. And how would shadow ministers fit into the picture? Should they be given a third act?

Third, the rationale for separating ministerial and departmental staff was not misconceived in the MOPS Act. Before that act, staff in ministers and other parliamentarians' offices were employed by requiring delegates in the public service to exercise their temporary employment powers to engage staff selected by MPs. That is to say, merit staffing was corrupted and politicised. Further, in 1982, Labor Party policy was to reserve a proportion of senior executive service jobs for political appointees. If introduced, such a measure would have been impossible to remove and would have done untold damage to the public service's effectiveness. The separation of departmental and ministerial staffing via the MOPS Act circumvented these grave dangers. Its operation has minimised the risk of attempts to involve departmental officials in party political matters and it has greatly reduced the desire of politicians to get ''their people'' into public service jobs.

Fourth, what evidence is there that ministerial gatekeepers are impeding ministers from taking control of their departments? As a significant majority of public servants say they have no difficulties in dealing with ministers and their offices, this claim is unconvincing; more like an excuse for some ministers to avoid, quite wrongly, the tacky business of departmental management.

Fifth, limiting ministerial staff to a maximum of five is just another arbitrary measure apparently not based on analysis of work to be done and without other evidentiary support; it is inconsistent with the detailed findings of Henderson's thorough 2009 report on staffing needs. It is more restrictive than the Westacott-Baxter formula, which has been said to be unrealistic by no lesser authorities than Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos and former departmental secretary Roger Beale.

But Nethercote may be right in suggesting there is scope for more of the ''routine work'' of ministerial offices to be undertaken by departmental staff, in addition to that done now by departmental liaison officers.

In summary, there may a case for a review of the MOPS Act, but thus far neither Nethercote nor anyone else has established it. The ministerial code of conduct could be included in the act. That at least might help to overcome the appalling ignorance among senior public servants of the code - but it doesn't require a review of the act.

Of course, any half-awake observer of federal politics will be aware of instances of ministerial staff behaving badly, but too many commentators, including academics, have used those instances to besmirch these staff as a class and the operation of the whole system. That's unreasonable and unwarranted. So is the pious hand-wringing about the ''black hole of accountability'' around ministerial staff. Their roles and functions are different from public servants; for example, they are regularly involved in matters of party political tactics and strategy, and having them routinely appearing before parliamentary committees would be a troublemakers' picnic and a recipe for the further trivialisation of politics. Ministers will account for their staff as they wish and bear the political consequences if they fail to live up to community expectations.

While improvements can be made for ministerial staff, the clock cannot and should not be turned back. The sooner this is appreciated, the better.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.