Having suggested more than a year ago the need for a review of Commonwealth administration, it might seem churlish now for me to criticise last month's announcement. While the decision is on the money, its timing is awry, as it's unlikely the review's report will end up in the current government's lap.
As welcome as the review otherwise is, its implementation has been botched. It is based on false assumptions; it is not, as the Prime Minister says, "independent"; and it is handicapped by terms of reference that are a vague mish-mash of ends and means curdled by heavy doses of meaningless modern gobbledegook. On top of that, the composition of the review panel is unbalanced and it lacks apparent background and experience for the job.
The introduction to the review's terms of reference link it to a recent Innovation and Science Australia report that concluded the public service had "not had the same disruption as the private sector" and reflected "the needs of governments in the 1980s". Strangely for a science agency, these sweeping assertions were unsupported by even a whiff of evidence – and they're baloney. How could ISA's board members be so gormless?
The government says the review is "timely" because "the structure, approach and operations of the APS reflect a framework for public administration shaped largely by the 1974-76 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration". It's true this commission has had significant effects, although changes from it ended in 1983-84, with the legislative and other measures introduced by then finance minister John Dawkins. Since then, the broader public service has moved a long way from the commission's scheme, so much so that many of its current weaknesses are because they do not reflect it.
So the government's rationale for the review is weak and confused, even if the push for it has come principally from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. And the rationale is entirely different to the forces that resulted in the royal commission. After 23 years of non-Labor administrations, the Whitlam government, elected in 1972, had apprehensions about the public service's willingness and capacity to get behind it; by 1974, the misgivings loomed larger. So the specific impetus for the commission came from within Whitlam's office, being mainly organised by one of his staff, Michael Delaney, with minimal involvement of the senior public service in central agencies, some of who were resolutely opposed. Although a significant progenitor of the royal commission, Delaney was not consulted about the Turnbull's government's mini-version, nor were the opposition parties. So much for the value of bipartisanship in efforts to improve public administration.
The commission operated entirely independently from the public service. Not only was it a royal commission, but its members were selected via discussions between its head, Dr H. C. "Nugget"Coombs, and the then prime minister's office. It hired its own staff and it kept an appropriate distance from the public agencies it was examining. Its membership was confined to people with public sector backgrounds.
The current review is a different beast. While the government says it is independent, it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is highly dependent upon institutions it is putting under the microscope. Its secretariat is located in PM&C; and its head is a deputy secretary in that department, and therefore appointed by the department's secretary. Other staff are also serving public servants and, while people from outside may be hired to help, on current indications, they will be engaged by the department. Further, the review panel will be shadowed by an advisory group of current ministers and it will report, not directly to the Prime Minister, but to him through the PM&C; secretary. In recent Senate estimates committee proceedings, it was asked if the head of the review's secretariat was "conducting the APS review". An officer of the department said: "Yes, he is." Talk about Freudian slips.
Let's put it in starker terms. If the public service review model were to be used for the inquiry into banks, Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne would be assisted by counsel drawn from senior officers from the major financial institutions under his investigation, and not Rowena Orr and her redoubtable fellow inquisitors.
Of course, the review panel's members will do their very best to bring an independence of mind to the matters before them but they've been hobbled by having their secretariat selected by senior public servants and integrated into a critical part of the bureaucracy they will want to investigate. That something like this can be dreamed up reflects poorly on the strength of governance nous within the system, a matter the panel might like specifically to consider.
What of the terms of reference?
Once through the verbal sludge that these days seems unavoidable in such documents – driving this and that, being agile and innovative, the employer of choice, fit for purpose, etc – the most obvious point is that the review is confined to departments and agencies covered by the Public Service Act, that is, about 60 per cent of Commonwealth civilian administration in staffing terms. Thus, it will not be possible for it to consider properly relations between public service agencies and other federal organisations. This should be a fundamental issue in any serious examination of the broader public service system; it was a major item for the Coombs commission. How the review will be able adequately to consider the administrative framework for the public service by looking only at a little over half of Commonwealth civilian employment is anyone's guess.
To further befuddle the picture, the terms of reference for the review are remarkably vague. They require it to "examine the capability, culture and operating model of the APS" so it can best meet certain ends like "driving innovation and productivity in the economy", providing "high-quality policy advice", improving "citizens' experience of government" and so on. They then goes on to say "the review will consider the suitability of the APS's architecture and governing legislation" and how it "monitors performance and how it ensures the transparent and effective use of taxpayers' money in delivering outcomes". And that's about it. The contrast with Coombs' terms of reference, which were wide-ranging but specific in terms of the range of matters to be considered, could hardly be greater.
The review team, for example, has not been specifically directed to deal with: the role of ministers and their relations with departments and agencies (a major concern if ever there was one); accountability; devolution and the role of central management; workplace relations and personnel policies; machinery of government principles; the serious current risks of nepotism and corruption in public service employment via the use of consultants, contractors and labour hire; and so on. For a review with only one member with recent direct experience of Commonwealth administration, the terms of reference's vagueness leave much to chance.
Finally, the review team's composition is unbalanced. It contains four with overwhelmingly private sector experience (David Thodey, Maile Carnegie, Belinda Hutchinson and Alison Watkins), one of whom is from a major bank while two have substantial experience in banks and the finance sector. One is a university vice-chancellor with a background in public administration (Professor Glyn Davis) and the other (Gordon de Brouwer) is a former federal department secretary.
Put it another way. If, after the Hayne royal commission, the banks and associated financial institutions were inclined to conduct a review of their "architecture" and "operating model", would they be wise to select a six-person review panel containing four public servants? Perhaps not. They might prefer to detach Carnegie, Hutchinson and Watkins from the public service review to help clean the filth from the banking stables, as they have the necessary background and experience for that unpleasant task.
That would then leave three vacant spots that could be used to rebalance the public service review panel.
First, how about a former minister with a demonstrated interest and involvement in public administration? That would help to concentrate the review's attention on what is the critical connection in government: that between ministers and their public service advisers.
Second, for all the hype about the need for the public service to get closer to citizens and to improve "citizens' experience of government", as Malcolm Turnbull has it, there's no one on the review panel to press these interests. So how about someone from a body representing those depending on government services – say, a welfare group, a taxpayer association or, better still, an organisation representing the interests of Aboriginal people, for whom government services struggle to hit the mark?
Third, despite Turnbull's rhetoric about "providing enriching work" for public servants, "nurturing talent" and being the "employer of choice", he's not given staff a representative on the review. So, how about someone from the ACTU, who would at least give his show something in common with the Coombs commission?
With such adjustments, the review panel would have a person from the private sector (Thodey), an expert in public administration (Davis), a former departmental secretary, a former minister, and citizens' and staff representatives, so bringing greater balance, expertise and diversity to the task at hand.
To conclude, let's go back to the question of timing and imagine a number of what veteran Canberra Times correspondent Jack Waterford would call "scenarios".
Scenario 1: A general election is held before the Thodey review has reported – and Labor wins. Suggested action: Call the Thodey review off, set up a replacement with better terms of reference, covering all of Commonwealth civilian employment and with a proper independence that would allow, among other things, it to hire its own staff. Such a review could draw upon the work already done, retain Thodey, Davis and de Brouwer, but substitute for Carnegie, Hutchinson and Watkins as suggested above.
Scenario 2: An election is held after the Thodey review has reported – and Labor wins. Suggested action: Establish a new and properly independent review that would be asked to quickly assess Thodey's recommendations and then cover the inevitable gaps there will be in his report, including those as a consequence of its restricted terms of reference.
Scenario 3: A Coalition government is returned at the next election. Suggested action: Press on with the Thodey exercise and hope for the best, given the limits with which it has been shackled.
Meanwhile, PM&C; says the review panel will shortly call for submissions. It should do more than that, it should request submissions from all Commonwealth agencies with staff employed under the Public Service Act and it should hold open hearings on them, as the Coombs commission did. While the review is supposed to be "open and collaborative", according to PM&C;, the department gives no undertakings about submissions being made public, ominously saying that "authors may choose to make" them so; that is pathetically inadequate.
For the Coombs commission, the then Public Service Board produced over 1000 pages of background information in seven volumes, two large submissions of over 300 pages covering overarching issues and 26 memoranda containing suggestions on a broad range of matters, from the rights and obligations of staff to the machinery of government. It will be interesting to see if the central agencies can come up with anything like the quantity and quality of the board's contribution, assuming their submissions will be made public. In the case of PM&C;, any submission it provides to the Thodey crew will have about it that funny old feeling of the department sitting down and writing itself a letter.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org