The Priorities for Change report, which the Australian Public Service review panel released last month, is one of the most inauspicious such documents produced in the Commonwealth in the past 30 years and therefore one of the most inauspicious in the Commonwealth's history. It is dwarfed by the Coombs royal commission report in 1976, the Reid review report in 1983 and the three white papers dealing with public service, budget reform and non-departmental organisations that the Hawke government produced in the 1980s.
And it is way below the standard of the Ahead of the Game report brought to light in 2010 during the Rudd government.
The panel's chairman, David Thodey, says the report "presents our current view" and invites people to "challenge our thinking". For that, there's ample scope.
The report kicks off with eight brief paras in which it purports to set out "APS history and tradition". Most of this is given over to praise – "proud history", "remarkably durable", "positive picture", "true to enduring values" and so on. There are a couple of lines about the effects of World War II but there's nothing about changes since the Coombs commission. This history wouldn't last two minutes in a preschool and gives the impression, reinforced in much of the rest of the report, that the panel is unconcerned about the lessons of experience. Oh, there are a few snapshot statistics about 2018, but no trends and scant detail.
After this, things quickly run into the sand. Let's take a few general points to begin.
The first thing that smacks the reader between the eyes is the report's suffocating language. No befuddling management cliche or nonsensical jargon is left out and meaning is consequentially obscured and confused. For example, the report says the public service needs "an operating model that dynamically responds to new and shifting priorities, with a culture and shared ways of working that allow teams to come together to tackle priorities for government and the Australian people". You wouldn't need to be Pauline Hanson to ask: "Please explain?"
Second, while fretting about the APS's policy-analysis capacity, the panel doesn't much trouble itself with analysis. That is, it tends to confirm the thing it frets about. Thus, in saying what it thinks is "needed", the report provides dot points on "context" and "what has shaped our thinking" but there is no connecting analytical content.
For example, it recommends "a move towards common pay and conditions across the service". There is, however, no analysis of the existing policy, no suggestion about how that might be changed and no outline of possible institutional implications. When questioned by a journalist on this recommendation, Thodey seemed not to understand what it meant. It's not, apparently, "standardised" pay and conditions but perhaps it's a move to greater equity. He said: "It's saying we're trying to move towards an environment that would have greater transparency and more common terms because one of the problems ... is there's so many of them out there." Got it? If you have, you must be able to see through mud.
Third, many of the report's suggestions are either pure motherhood or pure puzzlement. For example, on the "strategic allocation of funds", it recommends: "A budgeting framework that retains fiscal discipline and aligns spending with government priorities." That motherhood notion is as old a government itself yet the review provides no suggestions about how to make it real in the here and now. On the puzzlement front, we're told a "stable spine of common digital platforms that can operate across the APS for core enabling services" is needed. What that might be and what it should encompass is unsaid, with the secretaries board left "to oversee the development of this spine, subject to any direction by government". It's hoped the board can keep the "spine" as "stable" as possible. There's nothing worse than a wobbling, jelly-like spine.
When the review's report gets closer to putting a little flesh on some of its bones, it is no less disappointing.
First, it proposes a single "aspiration" for "a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians". It sees this aspiration as an "organising principle", saying trust is "founded on integrity, transparency and reliability" and that a "united" public service will be "characterised by joined-up leadership and a flexible operating model with collaboration the norm". This echoes the view of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, whose "vision" is for "a cohesive and capable APS – confident in its values, clear in its purpose and proud of it culture".
These aspirations, however, are about states of being: being trusted, being united, being proud, etcetera. They're forms of organisational narcissism, where looking good comes before doing good. It should be the other way round. That is, the APS will be trusted and can be proud when it performs its tasks effectively, efficiently and properly. The review has the cart before the horse.
Yet even if the "aspiration" were to be changed to one of doing, there's little reason to think it would be helpful in any significant ways to staff on the frontline of customs work, in naval stores, on a social-security counter, those in the rarefied stations of central office policy or anywhere else. It's one thing for individual departments to have "vision statements" but to layer them with a public-service-wide one is a stretch too far. Certainly, to see something like "a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians" as an "organising principle" is ridiculous.
Second, the review has great hopes in a more powerful secretaries board, which it would like to have "decision-making rights" so it could be "driving cross-portfolio policy and delivery outcomes". This suggestion appears to derive from the review's fundamental misconception that "the secretaries board is the APS's principal service-wide governance body". It is not: the cabinet is, an elementary fact that the review's analytical shyness allows it to overlook. Think of it this way: would the prime minister, treasurer and ministers for foreign affairs and defence be happy to have the secretaries board, all of whose members have time-consuming day jobs and most of whom would have no interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs and defence, "driving [their] cross-portfolio policy and delivery outcomes"? It doesn't bear thinking about.
There may be sense in the review's suggestion for committees of officials "mirroring" cabinet committees, as is probably now the case in some instances. But to give the secretaries board legislative powers to do things that rightly belong to ministers is a notion that should be consigned quickly to a waste-management (no pun intended) facility.
Third, the review picks up on a suggestion by (a former departmental secretary and public service commissioner) Andrew Podger that the PM&C; secretary should be recognised in legislation as the "head of the service" and the commissioner should similarly be designated as the "head of people". Thodey says these "roles and responsibilities should be clearly understood", although, except for a couple of imprecise suggestions affecting the commissioner, the report gives them no definition, leaving the impression that the panel doesn't understand them.
Fourth, the report rightly emphasises the importance of community "confidence in the appointment, performance management and termination of [departmental] secretaries". Yet, apart from saying there should be a "codified process" using "selection criteria", that process is unexplained save for the observation that the panel is thinking about an advisory panel of the PM&C; secretary, the public service commissioner and a "ministerial nominee".
Well, forget that. Any "ministerial nominee" would typically bring along the name of a person the minister would like in the job, leaving the panel with the easy and limited task of crafting an accommodating recommendation. So the "codified process" would be knocked for six and public confidence further undermined. Curiously, the review is unable to bring itself to discuss the problems associated with fixed-period appointments for secretaries or other matters related to their tenure, notwithstanding these matters also critically affect public confidence and the public service's ability to advise governments effectively.
Fifth, the panel urges the need to "reconfigure teams and deploy skills when and where needed". At the same time, after 10 months on the job, the panel is "still exploring" the desirability of minimising "machinery-of-government changes". While there's something to be said for both of these objectives, there's a tension between them. Bringing bits and pieces of departments together to do certain jobs and then disassembling them is akin to mini machinery-of-government changes, and it's a long-standing practice. Keeping machinery-of-government changes to a minimum is about maintaining organisational stability and continuity.
Regrettably, the panel doesn't analyse these tensions or their related history; nor does it adequately discuss means of coordinating activities other than by the physical bringing together of teams. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't get within a bull's roar of articulating principles that might be used in making decisions about the wider machinery of government, still less reflect on previous attempts to do so.
Sixth, the review panel sees a "formal, focused professionalisation of all APS roles delivered through a new 'professions model'" as key to improving staff capability. This would be brought forth by the public service commissioner and supported by a "dedicated, suitably resourced [of course] APS academy to source, design, deliver and/or leverage relevant capability-building initiatives". There is no explanation as to how this might be set up or how it could work, and no case is made for an "APS academy" because it's likely there isn't one.
The professionalisation suggestion appears to have been conjured from thin air and puffed up by another lapse into historical blindness. The fact is the public service was professionalised in the 1960s, principally through patient and intensive enterprise bargaining. In short, the essence of what the review panel suggests was attended to 60 years ago. The Thodey crew likes to boast about how it is setting the public service up for the 2030s – the problem is, though, if it can't look back, it almost certainly can't look forward.
Seventh, while ministers (departments' chief executives) barely warrant a mention in the review panel's report, it does make some recommendations on relations between the public service and ministers and their offices. Based as they in part are on a second-rate Australia and New Zealand School of Government paper commissioned by the panel, these recommendations add nothing new other than to suggest there should be "new positions for senior public servants in ministerial offices". Departmental liaison officers might be one thing but the idea that ministers might give up a part of their staff allocation to senior officials selected by departmental secretaries, possibly to "keep an eye" on them, is, to say the least, innovative and unworldly. It may be desirable to move away from the version of ministerial offices spoofed in the TV program Utopia but who wants to go back to the days of Yes, Minister?
One could go on, but these examples of the Thodey report's flakiness are typical of the document as a whole.
Equally unimpressive is what the report doesn't say. There is a long list, but let one example suffice. Nothing is said about the ways in which the use of labour hire and contractors to perform standard line jobs is exposing the public service to cronyism, nepotism and corruption in its staffing. These phenomena were the motive force behind the great reforms in the British civil service in the 19th century and, in turn, they shaped colonial administrations and the Commonwealth's.
The door is now being opened for these ills to be let back in and the Thodey review has nothing to say about their grave risk. The review claims to be concerned about public trust and confidence in the public service, yet it has not a word to say about the greatest contemporary threat to that trust.
Thodey's report includes a section on implementation. It says it has drawn on experience, but it appears neither the relevant ministers nor the senior officials involved in the highly successful (if extended) implementation of the Coombs royal commission and the Reid report were consulted. If they had been, the panel would have learned that the key to successful implementation is not merely, as it suggests, to have an "authorising environment" and "support" from government but to have a minister willing to take charge, get decisions from cabinet and then force their implementation.
As things stand, there's not much in the Thodey report that could or should be implemented. It's possible some irons can be pulled from the fire although such hopes must rest on a degree of optimism unwarranted by the review's record. It seems to have been too much influenced by the evils of the innovative mindset that requires the lessons of experience to be suppressed in favour of doing something different. Anything – it doesn't matter what, just so long as it's different. In this warped world, analysis doesn't matter.
A couple of weeks ago, Parkinson, the leading proponent of innovation in the public service, urged a meeting of his fellow economists to be analytical, fearless and persuasive. The review panel report is none of these things. It shies away from analysis, it steps around awkward problems like labour hire and contractors, remuneration policy and the mixed blessings of the efficiency dividend, and its clotted language and half-baked proposals are not just unpersuasive, they're off-putting.
The Thodey review could be a special problem for the ALP if gets lucky in the forthcoming election. If the Review maintains its current trajectory the ALP should consider starting again with a genuinely independent review, with proper terms of reference and powers and run by people with sound qualifications for the task.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org