Merit-based staffing is under threat, but public service chiefs seem uninterested

Merit-based staffing is under threat, but public service chiefs seem uninterested

Public servants must 'call out what is wrong' ... unless the wrongdoing is unlawful recruitment?

When it comes to his responsibilities as nominal head of the public service, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's secretary, Martin Parkinson, seems, in some respects, to have his heart in the right place. He turns up at public service functions and makes encouraging comments. He has been a strong advocate for a fairer deal for women.

Most commendably, in the last two years, Parkinson has given end-of-year "addresses" to the public service at large.

PM&C chief Martin Parkinson  wants public servants to pitch to him their 'big ideas'.

PM&C chief Martin Parkinson wants public servants to pitch to him their 'big ideas'.

Photo: Rohan Thomson

Both of these speeches began well: thanking staff for their work, reminding them of things that were achieved and expressing pride in the work they did. Unfortunately, after promising starts, Parkinson's speeches veered off course. American pianist and scholar Charles Rosen said the composer Vivaldi excelled at beginning a piece dramatically but "didn't handle the music very well after that". Some may be uncomfortable with that claim, but it's one that could be made, taking into account differences in the music and public service trades, of Parkinson's end-of-year speeches.

In 2016, Parkinson urged innovation to be "our friend" and urged public servants to "embrace it". Innovation simply means changing things. That can bring benefits and it can result in costly regressions. As innovation has no invariable inherent value, it is therefore an inappropriate objective in itself. Some public policy may require innovation but, equally, other bits might not. Indeed, constant change in many government activities – taxation policy, for example – would be disastrous. Change for change's sake is a strategy fraught with risk.

Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd rejects 'the assertion that there is widespread, inappropriate use of contractors'.

Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd rejects 'the assertion that there is widespread, inappropriate use of contractors'.

Photo: Jay Cronan

In 2017, Parkinson didn't get too far into some worthy prefatory remarks before error intruded. For example:

  • He said: "The Commonwealth government, and by consequence the [Australian Public Service], is doing more than at any period since perhaps World War II." Hang on: in 1975, Commonwealth employment included what is now Telstra, as well as Qantas, Trans Australia Airlines, the Commonwealth Bank, large veterans' hospitals, defence factories and dockyards employing many thousands, all airports (the then Transport Department had more staff than the Tax Office), what is now the administration of the ACT, a major construction organisation with 16,000 staff, and a lot more functions that are all now gone. While figures are not easy to come by, it's likely that in the last 40 years the Commonwealth has lost functions worth about 200,000 jobs. More narrowly, in June 1975, there were 277,455 staff in the public service (that is, that part of Commonwealth employment covered by the Public Service Act); in June 2017, that figure was 152,095. Notwithstanding population growth and the addition of new functions, the Commonwealth administration now does much less than at most times since the end of the World War II.
  • Parkinson said a review of Commonwealth administration in 1982 was "led by Gordon Reid". Professor Gordon Reid was a fine Australian, a gentle soul who, among many other things, flew Lancaster bombers over Europe in World War II, was a member of the Administrative Review Council from 1981-84 and was commissioned in 1982 to prepare an analytical study of the Australian Parliament. He was governor of Western Australia from 1984 to 1989. As clever and versatile as he was, Reid did not lead the review of Commonwealth administration in 1982. That was done by J. B. Reid, who at the time was chairman of James Hardie Industries and who is not known to have been related to Gordon.

Of themselves, these slips are not hugely consequential except to the extent they show an unnerving slackness about the historical record, which, if it were to become pervasive, could play merry hell with policy formulation and advising.

After these hiccups, Parkinson devotes the rest of his speech to asking his public service flock three questions:

  • "How well do you know the public you serve?"
  • "Are you ready for disruption?"
  • "What big policy idea or program could you achieve for Australia?"

Of course, public servants should know those they serve as well as they can, and Parkinson has some useful suggestions as to how they might better do that, although curiously he makes no mention of those the public service is primarily there to serve: ministers and governments, which must remain the principal mediators of community sentiment into the public service. Parkinson then picks up on a suggestion in the 2010 Ahead of the Game report on "citizens' surveys" of their experience in dealing with the public service. There could be benefits in such surveys, Parkinson says, if they could be "non-political". That hope is naive and misplaced. If any survey of citizens' views about their dealings with the public service were to turn up criticisms, it would, in the first instance, be a matter for ministers and the government, for they are essentially responsible for decisions about what the public service does, how it does it and the standards of service to be provided. That is, any citizens' survey would inevitably be political. Of the survey notion, Parkinson says: "Anyway, I throw that out there simply as an idea." It's not good enough to leave things on such an ambiguous note – public servants deserve to know if he believes in citizens' surveys and, if so, what he's going to do about them.

In asking about readiness for disruption, Parkinson says the change he anticipates "is revolutionary" and will be stuff that "fundamentally reframes human lives and systems". While significant technological change is obviously on the horizon, it's important to keep it in historical perspective. It will be as much fluffed if it's overstated as if it's understated. American economist Robert Gordon says that, in the United States (and, by implication, much of the Western world), the period from 1870 to 1970 saw the biggest technological change in human history, with the internal-combustion engine, electricity reticulation to houses and buildings, radio communication, television, the computer, medical anaesthetics, antibiotics and X-rays, all of which truly reframed human lives. Since 1970, Gordon says the rate of technological change has slowed and "channeled into a narrow sphere ... having to do with entertainment, communications and the processing of information". Indeed, there has been no technological change in the last 50 years that has affected human society to anywhere near the extent of the internal-combustion engine.

The APS needs to deal with disruption as best it can and it should do so with confidence. It's hard to imagine any long-life organisation in Australia that has been through more disruption since its formation. For example, it dealt with the massive demands of World War II and its aftermath. It adapted to huge technological change, leading the rest of the country in the 1960s and '70s in using computers, although it might not be doing so well now. Still, if it's not ready for more disruption across the board, it must have lost the memory and lessons of its long experience.

Finally, what's your big policy or program idea? Parkinson asks. Does he really expect his primary audience, the 150,000 members of the APS, to start scratching their noggins with respect to this one? If even half of them rallied to the call, he'd end up with 75,000 notes in his in-tray. Is this to be taken seriously? Is there no recollection of the futility of Kevin Rudd's 2020 Summit, where hundreds of hand-picked worthies, aided and abetted by "facilitators", endured the testing company of the former prime minister over a weekend in which they were instructed to come up with big ideas? And what happened as a result? As far as can be told, absolutely nothing.

Sound public policy is not developed by people sitting around in semi-isolation trying to think big. It involves cooperative efforts to refine government objectives, developing steps to achieve them, analysing options using as much information and intelligence as can be brought to bear, consulting interested parties and putting together recommendations to government wherein costs and benefits, together with any dissenting views, are clearly set out. If Parkinson thinks good public policy can result from urging all public servants to come up with "big ideas", the system may be in more difficulty than some imagine.

Parkinson and Lloyd don't appear to be greatly concerned that the requirements of merit staffing might not be being properly observed

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Then there's what Parkinson doesn't say. In a short speech, it's hard to cover everything unless you're Abraham Lincoln, but he makes no reference, as awkward for him as it may be, to the "fake", costly and damaging remuneration policy that staff, managers and taxpayers have endured for a long time, the mindless continuing use of efficiency dividends to reduce resources without reference to work to be done, and concerns that constitutional and legal provisions designed to avoid nepotism, patronage and corruption in recruitment to the public service may be being undermined.

On recruitment, Parkinson and Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd were asked if they were aware of recent reports (one in the Informant) that one agency had used procurement rules and another engaged a consultant for senior line management positions in the APS, and that in relation to one of these cases the Australian Government Solicitor's office reportedly warned that the arrangement might breach federal law. Parkinson and Lloyd were also asked if they had taken any steps to have these allegations investigated, together with others claiming that large numbers of contractors and consultants were being used to do work materially indistinguishable from that undertaken by public servants. They were also asked about their general attitudes to such practices.

Parkinson said:

... [the APS] continues to be a fast-paced organisation that utilises contractors and labour-hire services for a wide range of specialist services. In order for the APS to continue its innovation agenda, provide high-quality advise to government and deliver on a broad range of services to the Australian public, it is critical that we are able to provide a wide range of employment options. The Australian Public Service uses contractors and expertise when there is a particular need for a specialised skill. To my knowledge, all departments and agencies have acted within the Public Service Act and all other relevant codes when making procurement decisions. There are no current investigations of which I am aware. Australian government departments and agencies are responsible for managing their own staffing requirements ... any further questions on particular departments should be referred to the relevant agency directly.

Lloyd said:

I am aware of recent media articles that have made the allegations you have referred to. I am not conducting any investigations into these matters. I reject the assertion that there is widespread, inappropriate use of contractors. Modern organisations go to market to bring in specialist expertise and boost capability for periods of time, rather than holding on to skills continuously. This is an efficient and effective way of doing business. The use of flexible work methods will endure as a feature of public administration. The APS is transparent about its use of consultants and contractors. Agencies have to satisfy onerous reporting obligations and scrutiny in the use of resources.

Thus, Parkinson and Lloyd don't appear to be greatly concerned that the requirements of merit staffing might not be being properly observed. Lloyd is happy to "reject" any accusation of "inappropriate use of consultants" without investigating related allegations. That's a novel approach but one presumably consistent with a "fast-paced", "modern" organisation, providing a "wide range of employment options" using "flexible work methods".

More importantly, it's surprising that neither Parkinson nor Lloyd refer to relevant provisions in the constitution and the law dealing with public service recruitment.

Section 67 of the constitution dealing with the "appointment of civil servants" says: "Until the Parliament otherwise provides, the appointment and removal of all other officers [than ministers] of the executive government of the Commonwealth shall be vested in the governor-general in council, unless the appointment is delegated by the governor-general in council or by a law of the Commonwealth to another authority."

Consistent with section 67, laws have given organisations like the ABC and the CSIRO their own employment powers. In the public service, however, powers to appoint and remove staff have only otherwise been provided by the Parliament via the Public Service Act and, to a limited extent, the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act.

These laws do not preclude governments using consultants, contractors and labour hire for such tasks as cleaning and grounds maintenance, providing advice on policy or management problems, help installing computing and other equipment, call centres and the like. There is, however, a serious question about the legality of using contractors, consultants and labour-hire workers to perform tasks materially indistinguishable from the work of public servants – that is, those who are in line positions, supervising or being supervised by public servants, exercising staffing and financial delegations, taking part in management and so on. That's why the office of the government solicitor raised a warning flag. Moreover, contractors and others performing work normally done by public servants are not subject to the Public Service Act's code of conduct and related disciplinary procedures, and their primary loyalties are to their employers not the APS. How many of these people now work in the public service? Is it 5000, 10,000, 30,000? We don't know.

Section 67 and the merit staffing provisions of the Public Service Act are the key to an efficient and effective public service. They are the inheritance of the great 19th century reform movements in British public life. They are designed to minimise the risks of patronage, nepotism and corruption in the appointment and tenure of public officials. The door to those risks would be opened if contractors, consultants and labour-hire staff were engaged to perform work materially indistinguishable from that done by public servants.


Parkinson and Lloyd have a grave responsibility to see that that doesn't happen.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.

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