A Chinese philosopher might think that the current Australian Public Service review has too much yin (passive and in the spirit of things) and not enough yang (active and more in the form of things). If so, a helpful philosopher of this ilk would say: "These forces should be kept in balance for, if they are not, things can easily go off the rails."
Our philosopher's view would have been confirmed by a recent speech from the review's chairman, David Thodey, about arrangements he's made for the "face-to-face workshops" with public servants and members of the public "to test our [the review's] thinking".
Thodey's speech does not exceed the expectations inherent in its title, "early reflections". He talks about "emerging themes" like respect for the public service, maintaining capability, responsiveness, developing the workforce and, of course, our latest good friend, innovation. He covers experience in four or five countries, some of which may be useful. He only gets specific in pondering if "a single, clear, aspirational purpose statement for the public service" would "drive greater collaboration and convey" and clarify its role for the community. Maybe; maybe not. Public officials and citizens surely know, more or less, that the public service's unchanging role is to support and advise the government and administer such programs for which the Parliament supplies money. Might a "single ... purpose statement" that would be lucky to escape the perils of syrupy, modern cliche be of much help? Let's leave that dangling for the moment.
Thodey's main message is that he "doesn't have any answers yet" – that's fair enough, in a sense. However, for a review that was established four months ago, it might reasonably be expected that it would have formed a handful of tentative views about a few things. There's no sign of it. That is to say, there's too much yin and not enough yang.
The same is so with the "face-to-face workshops". The locations have been notified but there are no dates, no agendas, no indication of the review's "thinking", no outline of procedures to be followed and no indication of who from the review will attend – the ordinary things that people thinking of turning up should be told. If the idea of a "single-purpose statement" is the only suggestion Thodey takes to the "workshop" to be held in Bridgewater (Tasmania), the locals could become unruly.
In 1983, the government established a taskforce on public service reform led by the minister for finance and the public service, John Dawkins, and including several senior departmental secretaries. Within a matter of months, it produced a white paper detailing a large number of specific proposals dealing with the left-over recommendations of the Coombs royal commission and those in the 1983 Reid report. The paper was used as a means of consultation. This latest review should learn from this experience and produce a paper or a series of papers outlining draft conclusions that can be distributed before the workshops. There's no point in wandering into a hall and asking people what they think – consultees need to have something specific to react to. Consultation will not work unless it has clear purpose and specific focus.
The review should do as much as it can to help itself because it's not getting much from other sources. Sure, it received more than 600 submissions but most of these provide slim pickings; there are a few notable exceptions. Of the 130-odd public service agencies, only seven have made public submissions: the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Tax Office, the Transport Safety Bureau, the Small Business Ombudsman and the Infrastructure Department. The first four of these are good and Home Affairs' is the best.
It's a pathetic commentary on the state of the service that so few agencies had the guts to make open submissions. Bugger all from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet but one from the NSW Department of the Premier and Cabinet. Bugger all from the Finance Department and the Public Service Commission, both of which have been embarrassed by two weighty submissions from the Community and Public Sector Union. And bugger all from the Department of Industry etc, whose secretary, Heather Smith, complained earlier this year about the lack of a "burning platform" for change; of all people, she should have been prepared to openly nail her colours to the mast. Her "burning platform" seems to have gone up in smoke.
The failure of the vast majority of agencies to make public submissions is not just a failure of intellectual fortitude. It's a failure to promote public discussion and to have their views tested in the open marketplace, a thing some agency heads appear to believe in, if only theoretically. But no – with a handful of honourable exceptions, the senior public service flunks a major test of leadership, even if it is wielding its influence via confidential whisperings into the ears of Thodey and his colleagues. The contrast with the strikingly productive openness of the banking royal commission could not be starker.
So we might turn with hope to the submission from the Institute of Public Administration Australia. By cripes it's innovative, including as it does full-page colour photographs of its president and four other public administration notables. Never, it might be safely wagered, has the cult of personality been more grandiloquently vented in any public submission in world history.
Professor Mark Evans, of the University of Canberra, was the submission's "lead investigator" and, presumably, its drafter, although he's presumably not responsible for its typographical errors. (Professor: the review's chairman is David, not Davis.) The institute's president, Professor Peter Shergold, puts up the institute's weights by saying "the paper helps increase the likelihood of the review" imagining "how the APS can be transformed" and give new life to "public service traditional values". The submission fails to live up to that hype.
While aiming, it says, "to help bridge a significant gap in the existing evidence base of APS reform", the submission distorts significant bits of that evidence. For example, it says many of the Coombs royal commission's recommendations were "not implemented for some time" and most of its proposals "were addressed incrementally over a 30-year period". The truth is that the Fraser government implemented a good deal of the Coombs report in its more immediate aftermath (see the Senate Hansard, May 23, 1980, pages 2863 to 2871). The Dawkins taskforce review dealth with most of the rest of the report in 1983-84, which resulted in the biggest single swag of public service changes in the last 40 years. Inexplicably, this most influential of reviews does not make it onto the IPAA's list of major reviews since 1974. Let's be quite clear: the Coombs recommendations were not addressed over a 30-year period. The report was effectively put on the shelf in 1987 after the publication of the fourth and last of the Hawke government's white papers on public sector reform.
The fact is that the contemporary public service is distinguished not by the extent to which it reflects the Coombs commission but by the extent to which it doesn't: different procedures for senior appointments, no "unified public service", no strong central personnel and management agency, a lack of coordination and synchronicity in pay and conditions, and so on. This is an important analytical point, which those responsible for the IPAA submission (and Thodey) appear not to appreciate. Instead of filling its list of references exclusively with secondary sources (including four from Evans), the IPAA might have better represented the historical record if it had included basic source documents, of which there is no shortage. It would also have done itself a favour if it had included Dawkins and Michael Delaney in the list of luminaries it consulted. Dawkins is one of the few ministers to take an effective interest in public service reform, and Delaney was the driving force behind the establishment of the Coombs commission and played a critical role in helping Dawkins in the 1983-84 changes. That is to say, Dawkins and Delaney have had a greater influence on public service reform than any of those the IPAA includes on its list.
The IPAA submission does, however, draw 10 useful "lessons" from the faulty short-list of past reviews it has examined. The irony is that the review meets only two of them, misses another four, with it being too early to say with the others.
The real disappointment with the IPAA submission is that, while it makes a reasonable fist of explaining what it would like the public service to be, it makes virtually no useful, practical suggestions as to how the noble aims it describes might be achieved – that is the core of what the review must get to grips with.
The anodyne alternative?
Finally, let's come to the Labor Party. While the Turnbull government didn't consult it about having a public service review, the shadow finance minister, Jim Chalmers, has been talking to Thodey. Early in August, Chalmers made a speech outlining "the direction in which Labour would take the public service" and "some initial plans for it". His intentions are worthwhile although narrow and unimaginative. They are to reduce spending on consultants, add 1200 public servants to the Department of Human Services, not proceed with the extra 0.5 per cent efficiency dividend next year, abolish the staffing cap (a decision made by the Hawke government in 1983) and reduce travel spending by 10 per cent (a hoary, populist old chestnut if ever there was one).
While reasonably complaining about the taint of politics in some senior appointments, Chalmers doesn't see any need to change the system that's now producing such results. He and his party should think again.
The risk of politicisation in appointments to statutory positions now arises because secretaries and other senior officials normally providing advice about them can be told by prime ministers or other ministers whom they should recommend. That is to say, the process can be fouled from the outset. These risks could be minimised by making the primary advising role as independent as possible, as is now the case, for example, for members of the ABC and SBS boards.
Therefore, for positions like the public service commissioner, the Commonwealth ombudsman, the productivity commissioner, the auditor-general and others, it would be useful if:
- vacancies were normally advertised;
- candidates were assessed by an independent, standing nominations committee, including a former senior official and a person with experience in senior appointments. The committee should not include serving departmental public servants but could be augmented by other independent persons as needs be;
- nominations committee reports were initially submitted to the joint committee on public accounts and audit, as now happens with the auditor-general, with the committee being required to certify that proper procedures were followed and the recommended candidate is suitable; and
- endorsed reports were then provided to the prime minister (or other appropriate minister), with the governor-general making appointments.
Although such an arrangement might be resisted by ministers and some senior officials because it would curtail their flexibility and scope for patronage, it might be hoped that the APS review could properly balance these self-interests with the public interest in doing the right thing. It could even give the idea a run in its workshops, even the one in Bridgewater (Tasmania).
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com