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Public service a 'disappearing art', says former mandarin Gary Sturgess

'Disappearing craft': Public service observer Gary Sturgess.

'Disappearing craft': Public service observer Gary Sturgess. Photo: Supplied

A former mandarin has voiced concerns about the disappearing craft of the public service and the ability of bureaucrats to speak truth to power.

Gary Sturgess is credited with establishing NSW’s public sector corruption watchdog and helped set up the Council of Australian Governments and now says modern bureaucrats are studying less and not communicating enough with colleagues.

It often left them outgunned by well-staffed ministerial offices looking for solid direction amid the onslaught of the 24-hour media cycle.

‘‘Some people have said to me the public service has given up the field,’’ he said.

‘‘There is a role to play in making sure ministers don’t rush ahead and act contrary to the public interest and public servants are custodians of that wisdom.’’

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Mr Sturgess said federal Labor’s home insulation fiasco and corruption inquiries in NSW were reminders of recent occasions when public servants should have been ‘‘pushing back’’ more against politicians.

His concern about a lack of respect for the public service ‘‘craft’’ echoes thoughts from other experienced observers.

Last week sacked Industry Department boss Don Russell said secretaries and their staff were being excluded from the decision-making process.

In late 2012 Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott said the authority of public servant was being undermined by political gatekeepers who often had little expertise and no accountability.

At the same time she said the public service, which should be influencing decisions about the nation’s future, was not dealing well enough with succession planning, technology or better ways of doing its job.

Despite these setbacks Professor Sturgess told policy students at Griffith University the public service had not lost its importance.

“I think there is perhaps less concern now about the craft of public service,’’ he said.

‘‘That craft is about caring and ensuring you are across the range of disciplines, skills and techniques that are required.

‘‘Studying what has been happening in other jurisdictions and learning lessons from the past are all part of what I would call the craft. The capacity to innovate in policy and in delivery lies at the heart of the craft.

“Those who excel are partly motivated by the thrill of solving complex problems and a need to make a difference in the world.’’

The new professor of Public Service Innovation at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations said the craft of the public servant was enormously important and required application.

“It requires study; it requires you to read extensively - it requires you to talk to your colleagues,’’ he said.

‘‘I think I see less of that today.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Professor Sturgess served as Director-General of the NSW Cabinet Office under Premier Nick Greiner, and is credited with creating the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

7 comments so far

  • so, just to try to distil this whole article - public servants are not doing there job- specifically senior pubic servants - that's the main thrust isn't it? They don't serve the public interest - so, they are in their jobs because...they get paid?
    So IF the senior public servants had been doing their jobs - there wouldn't have been a roof insulation fiasco - because, they wouldn't have left the Minister hanging? So, they left the Minister hanging, to save their own skins?
    Wow, I really want these people making policy on my behalf - I suppose when they hear the words moral courage and ethics..they google them to see what they mean?

    Commenter
    Things as They Are
    Date and time
    April 09, 2014, 1:18PM
    • My experience of the 'old circus' was that its main aim was to not 'rock the boat' - regardless of which party was in power, And the SES were the 'gatekeepers' or 'watchdogs', to insulate the politicians from reality - and even more, good ideas.

      Commenter
      Bob9000
      Location
      Canberra - Weston
      Date and time
      April 09, 2014, 1:31PM
      • "A former mandarin has voiced concerns about the disappearing craft of the public service and the ability of bureaucrats to speak truth to power."

        The big issue here is that the Government masters no longer want truth. They want obedience at any cost. They don't want to be told that a program is dangerous, or too costly, or not effieicent, or not beneficial. They want to be able to fulfill election promises and will blithely ignore the rumblings of common sense coming from the public service who will ultimately cop the blame.

        Public servants who stand their ground and question the orders of their masters very quickly learn the errors of their ways.

        Commenter
        Hmmph!
        Location
        Near Brisbane
        Date and time
        April 09, 2014, 1:42PM
        • Maybe if we got rid of the nepotism, and stopped the great grandchildren of public servants joining the ranks, we'd see some improvement in the quality of public servants - as it is, they're all born and bred Canberrans, establishing and maintaining their own little empires of mediocrity. Just sayin'.

          Commenter
          Cobbcres
          Location
          ACT
          Date and time
          April 09, 2014, 3:48PM
          • "Gary Sturgess is credited with establishing NSW’s public sector corruption watchdog and helped set up the Council of Australian Governments and now says modern bureaucrats are studying less and not communicating enough with colleagues."

            Another major issue is the lack of diversity at the top of the APS. In fairness, this in not restricted to the APS but to large parts of Private Industry in Australia.
            The current crop of the most powerful Dept Heads are mostly Finance alumni. This is not good for decision making and it certainly will not produce the creative tensions at the top that drive excellence in policy advice. The biggest issue that this can lead to is either group-think or more often a rather strict informal hierarchy where adherence to ones seniors advice and guidance gets you to the next level. See Yes Minister for this in action.

            The situation that now faces the public is that there is a formal succession program that is being driven largely by patronage out of Finance. Limited gene pools seldom produce superior results over many generations.

            To address the critical analysis that Gary Sturgess has presented, the top of the APS will need to at some point address the Finance mostly linage and look for leaders from further afield. The up shot will be to bring fresh perspectives to government and balance the current finance is the only thing that matters view.

            When the APS can start to again give a wider range of advice to government and articulate the need for more rounded policy,not just a finance perspective, both the APS and the government of the day will benefit greatly and provide better solutions to long term issues that matter to the electorate.

            Commenter
            Lost Soul
            Location
            Canberra the heart of Despair
            Date and time
            April 09, 2014, 5:55PM
            • I find it hard to believe that the craft of being a public servant is becoming a disappearing art, as most I know studied Arts and Crafts as a degree!

              Commenter
              Art Vandelay
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              April 10, 2014, 1:28AM
              • First they came for the refugees. Then they came for the Unionists. Then they came for the public servants. When they finally came for me, there was no one left to speak up. Join hands. We all form a perfect circle of political apathy.

                With apologies to Marty Niemoller.

                Commenter
                Chrispa
                Date and time
                April 10, 2014, 4:25PM

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