The first Abbott ministry meets last month. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The most important question in public administration today is: what does the election of a Coalition government mean for the Australian Public Service? The first months of a new government are always a difficult period of adjustment, for ministers and public servants. It will be a while yet before the likely shape of the public sector is sorted out.
The government has committed itself to running a commission of audit. It will have broad terms of reference to examine programs and processes of the federal government. That inquiry is likely to run at least into the new year. The government would be well advised to give it sufficient time to gather reliable information and analyse it thoroughly. It will get better results with greater likelihood of success if it does so. One of the complaints made by the commissioners after the Howard government's similar audit in 1996 was they were not given enough time. Many of the recommendations were criticised as half-baked - that's because they were. As a result, many were never implemented. The fault lay not with the commissioners nor their support staff (drawn from within the public service) but with the truncated timetable.
Secrecy can be a career boost for otherwise quite unimpressive managers. By speaking in generalities, answering questions with a question, and smiling enigmatically they may earn a reputation for being inscrutable and wise.
Australia typically has long periods between changes of government. The six years of Labor government from 2007 was relatively brief. As a result, many ministers, including new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have recent experience of ministerial office.
Nevertheless, a number of new ministers without that experience will still be feeling their way. It is typical for all new governments to have at least one spectacular fall from grace among new ministers. The sudden rise to power goes to their heads. Whether it is abuse of travel allowances, importing goods without paying the right taxes, or a silly media statement, many new ministers have slipped up after a change of government. The only exception in recent years was the well-disciplined Rudd cabinet. Given Abbott's very disciplined election campaign, he will hope to maintain that record. We have already seen a sign of this in an instruction from his office that ministers not give media interviews without permission.
Over the years, we have seen far greater centralisation of power in the prime minister's office with each change of government. Kevin Rudd was more of a central controller than any of his Labor predecessors; John Howard more so than any past Coalition prime minister.
The centralisation imposes discipline but involves a trade-off. The more the prime minister is seen to be running the show, the greater the risk to prime ministerial authority if something does go wrong. It is easy to jettison a junior minister, as Howard and Bob Hawke found in their first terms. It is much harder if the prime minister is seen to have been responsible.
Illustration: David Rowe
This also increases risks for public servants. Ministers rely on the public service in two key respects: to deliver the government's programs and to advise ministers. Very few ministers care about the former. Mostly, they expect programs to be delivered and only become concerned if there is media attention on failings. Those who care about program delivery are popular with departments and service delivery agencies. Lines of accountability are important with program delivery. The Westminster model relies on accountability of agencies in the portfolio to their own portfolio minister. They should, and the good ones do, keep their minister informed of events, where likely problems may arise and the outlook for the future. Ministers are thus prepared to deal with problems. Centralisation of power in the PMO and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet blurs the accountabilities. PMO staff can't expect to be across the detail in the same way as a portfolio minister. They are prone to starting at shadows: overreacting to media reports or complaints from stakeholders, suggesting quite inappropriate interventions, and going into panic over matters that the portfolio minister may well have under control. They have been known to suggest impractical changes to services for short-term political purposes that a good portfolio minister would avoid. In fairness though, they can also play a valuable role in curbing similar mistakes by an inexperienced portfolio minister.
The second key role of the public service, advice, differs depending on the type of minister. Some have deep interests in policy and want well-researched policy advice with a range of deeply considered options for consideration. Others want flashy media opportunities, lots of openings of signs or buildings, announcements and photo opportunities. One of the key tasks for public servants is to understand what type of minister they have. To make it more difficult, ministers always say the right things. They deeply care about the future of Australia, are interested in policy, value the work of the department, and are overjoyed and honoured to be minister for their particular portfolio. They don't get to be ministers without knowing the right words. Much more important than the rhetoric will be ministers' demonstrated behaviour. The trick is to pay attention not only to what they say but also to what they choose to spend their time doing.
There have been two early signals from the new government that raise alarm bells about its approach to public administration: more sackings of departmental secretaries than expected, and the media blackout on information about boat arrivals.
Sacking three secretaries, with Treasury head Martin Parkinson to retire next year, went further than most observers had expected. It was not as dramatic as the Howard government's sacking of six department heads in 1996 - a night of short rather than long knives. As Professor Richard Mulgan explains, it was well within the rights of the new government. However, its suddenness attracted criticism. Crikey journalist Bernard Keane speculated the sackings were payback for public servants faithfully serving the previous Labor government. If that is true, it is an indictment on the public service that the Coalition thought only three had done that. The public service should diligently support the government whatever its politics. More likely is that the sackings were intended to serve a similar purpose to Howard's: send a clear message that the government was in charge and expected the public service to toe the line.
The clampdown on daily information about boat arrivals was quickly supplemented, following media protests, with a weekly briefing. Nevertheless, it sets a worrying precedent. Secrecy is the enemy of accountability and effective performance. Open reporting (outside national security and people's personal details) of information about the activities of government departments and how they are performing helps improve their performance over time and increases confidence in the public sector. There are, however, some in the public service who prefer secrecy. It allows mistakes to be buried. It can also be a career boost for otherwise quite unimpressive managers. By speaking in generalities, answering questions with a question, and smiling enigmatically they may earn a reputation for being inscrutable and wise. Secrecy prevents them being exposed as merely ill-informed and naive.
There are parallels between now and the early years of the Howard government but very important differences as well. The new government faces a much more uncertain international economic outlook. It is highly volatile. The optimistic scenario is a strong recovery in the United States and China. Alternatively, for example, financial markets might panic if the US Congress engages in its traditional, last-minute brinksmanship over raising that government's debt ceiling. This could lead to the unleashing of losses from the global financial crisis that are still not crystallised and are being slowly managed down.
These factors are entirely outside the Abbott government's control. In this uncertain future, a good working partnership between the government and its public service will be essential. It also means the new government is not in a position to expand spending on the public service, as seen in the latter years of the Howard government. It has shown no sign of stepping back from its commitment to cut 12,000 staff.
The situation we face compares with the challenges of economic adjustment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The public service at that time also faced substantial cuts while having to implement numerous program and policy changes. The difference then was the Labor government was established, not newly elected, and the public service had gone through rapid reform and modernisation, which meant it was able to react quickly. Even so, our public service has shown a capacity in the past to adjust and retool as needed. It could do so again if the pessimists are accurate and the international economy nosedives.
Stephen Bartos is executive director, Canberra, at ACIL Allen Consulting and a former senior public servant.