It's a good time to be a public servant ... if you're bold

The bureaucracy is a great place to work - when its leaders are prepared to take risks.

How well is the federal public service performing? There are two equally wrong ways to approach that question. The first is to deny any problems exist, and where possible hide all shortcomings behind walls of secrecy, commercial in confidence, national security, national interest or some other feeble cover. The second is to focus only on the problems, and ignore the value the public service delivers to Australia day in and day out:h pension payments, defence, health and education programs, maintaining consumer and competition law, company regulation, or the myriad other functions it performs. The public sector is a key component of a modern mixed economy and, for the most part, delivers its services effectively and efficiently.

Former Productivity Commission head Bill Scales has questioned whether a "serious malaise" is affecting APS leaders' ...
Former Productivity Commission head Bill Scales has questioned whether a "serious malaise" is affecting APS leaders' effectiveness. Photo: Craig Abraham

There are, however, ways in which it could improve. Sadly, in today's climate of paranoia and secrecy, this message is often interpreted negatively and resisted by the senior levels of the public sector. The Australian Public Service has always had two competing schools of thought within it: those who think the purpose of the public service is to prevent things from happening, because all innovation involves risk. They cling to the status quo with ferocity, and warn ministers about only the dangers in any initiative. Then there are those who are prepared to take risks, because the reward is better policies for government and better services for the public. At present, it seems the former view is held by much of the leadership of the service, to its disadvantage. More constructive critics, and bolder risk takers, would lead to a better Australia.

It was very much in this spirit that the Institute of Public Administration Australia's young professionals network held a debate last week on the topic that ''it's a good time to be a public servant''. You would think that with efficiency dividends, job cuts and talk of doom and gloom, this would be an impossible task. Not at all. Both sides of this debate appealed to hope. Although the negative won (narrowly), it was only because they, too, played the optimism card, suggesting things would improve in the future, though now was a low point in the fortunes of the public service.

It was a light-hearted debate. The affirmative side revealed, under mannered public service clothes, superhero costumes and powers to fight off super villains such as the parliamentary triangle parking meter. The negative side claimed this set a bad example: they had to resist the urge to strip, too. Underneath the frivolity, though, there were serious messages. The young professionals of the public service, with the help of a couple of older ring-ins, were united on two key observations: the public service faces huge challenges, but is prepared to transform itself to meet them.

What were the positive messages? First, change is essential to make better use of technology, innovate, and employ new ways of working with people. Second, the public service is important: its work makes a real difference to the lives of millions of Australians. Third, there is willingness, indeed eagerness, within the public service to make the changes needed to ensure these services are delivered better in future.

These messages can be overlooked. As one speaker pointed out, the public service is rarely thanked or appreciated by the public. Public service mistakes - though few in percentage terms, given the breadth of public sector work - are often sources of material for the constant public diet of media bad news stories. By contrast, as one speaker noted, the annual Australian awards for public sector excellence (also sponsored by the IPAA) showcase the remarkable range and quality of public service achievements.

Somewhere, behind every one of these accomplishments, was a public servant who was prepared, once upon a time, to declare there had to be a better way of doing things, stick their neck out and argue for change.

When that courage is lacking, the public service fails. This was seen in the findings of an important review of the public policy processes of the national broadband network from 2008 to 2010. Predictably, it found the processes under the previous government were flawed. This was not exactly a state secret: the flaws had been obvious to most observers. Malcolm Turnbull is a smart politician and knows well that a minister should never commission a review unless he or she knows what it will find.

More important, though, was the review's message for the public service. The review was conducted by Bill Scales, a highly respected former senior federal and Victorian public servant. As a former Productivity Commission head, he has a deep understanding of what constitutes a good policy process.

Some of the findings are obvious: large projects like the NBN should undergo a cost-benefit analysis beforehand, there should be more consultation, and realistic time frames. These are all sensible and will be adopted. Labor, when in office, resisted subjecting the NBN to a cost-benefit study but, ironically, a separate review by Michael Vertigan, also released last month, found that such a study would have given the NBN a green light.

The far more troubling finding for the longer-term future of the public service is Scales's last one: ''The leaders of the APS should examine whether its inability to have its views seriously considered on the important matters … was circumstantial or whether it signals a more serious malaise within the APS that needs addressing.'' It is a serious concern for effective implementation of public programs when the public service fails to make its voice heard on policy.

Scales notes it is tempting to assume this related to the ''very special circumstances and operating culture of the Rudd Labor government at the time'' but rejects this as ''too convenient an explanation''. As he observes, ''there have been many other times in Australia's history when similarly difficult and complex policy issues have emerged and have created tensions between the executive and the most senior levels of the public service'' (he should know: he was involved in some). Even so, ''robust advice has still been provided to ministers … and this advice has been taken seriously and taken into account''. He is absolutely correct: good public servants can and should find ways to present their advice to ministers even when that advice is not what ministers want to hear. It is always possible if senior public servants have the requisite courage.

Scales lacked the time and resources to investigate this thoroughly, which is why he handballed it to the APS leadership to consider. It resonates with other pieces of evidence on policy failures of late. Ross Gittins wrote recently that the Prime Minister and Treasurer should not take all the blame for the low quality of their budget measures. They were in part the victims of the Treasury and the Finance Department serving up bad policy options. The home insulation scheme's failings have also been well documented.

Another obvious policy failure is that the public service seems unable to come up with any solution to the problem of refugees arriving by boat other than detention camps that, to act as a deterrent, must be even worse than the conditions the refugees are fleeing from. We have fallen into the trap of thinking there are only two options (boat arrivals or detention camps). Of course people should not be encouraged to undertake risky sea journeys, but internment is not the only option. By contrast, in the 1970s, Australia's policy and operational agencies (not only immigration's but foreign affairs, defence and all the central agencies) developed a workable approach to deal with Vietnamese boat arrivals - in close cooperation with the Malaysian government - that delivered lasting benefit to Australia. Better options are possible and should be found. Failing to do so may well go down in history as the public service's greatest failing of the current decade.

Stephen Bartos is executive director, Canberra, of ACIL Allen Consulting and a former senior public servant.


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