The boss of the Department of Infrastructure has delivered a blunt assessment of some of Canberra's most powerful public servants and political staffers, calling out central agencies as dollar-driven policy killers.
In a speech to the Institute of Public Administration in Canberra this week, Mike Mrdak said sending reform proposals to Parliament House or the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet early was a sure way to have good policy ideas killed off, arguing line agencies were better placed to deliver development through constructive relationships and cooperation.
The comments have echoed through Canberra's public service circles, leaving some surprised by the at times undiplomatic tone.
A former PM&C deputy secretary and Commonwealth coordinator-general, Mr Mrdak said more long-term planning and evidence-based decision making was needed to overcome the short focus of governments.
He said "forward-leaning steps" were often needed on infrastructure planning, including sometimes ahead of public opinion.
Mr Mrdak warned reform proposals born in central agencies or prime ministers' offices often did not serve the public or the states and territories well.
"If you want to see a reform agenda killed early, hand it over to the PMO, PM&C or premier's departments, and you'll not see it ever come to fruition," he said to laugher from the room.
"The only way that you get long-term change and reform is when it's driven by line agencies and the coordination is done at the centre, but the hard work is done in the line area.
"Often the Commonwealth and also state governments don't draw enough value from the expertise of their line agencies. Reform led by central agencies usually founders quite early because it doesn't have buy-in from line agencies across the jurisdictions and is often driven too much by the Treasury focus on where the dollars go."
Citing heightened discussion about the Australian constitution during Parliament's citizenship fiasco, Mr Mrdak said fast electoral cycles and limited political agendas hampered good processes and the public service needed to provide a buffer.
"Electoral cycles are very short, the focus of government tends to be very short.
"We are the continuity and the people who have to understand what the future needs are to provide that long-term advice to government. We must have a view on the right outcome.
"Often governments don't want to hear our view - and a view is not an opinion. I have lots of opinions, they're not worth a lot, but my agency and my portfolio has a view about the right outcome for the future. It's informed by evidence, it's informed by good long-term research and it is all about what is the right outcome for the challenges facing the country."
He used the speech to call for line agencies to lead engagement with state governments and experts, because the approach of central agencies including PM&C and Treasury did not facilitate agreement on policy solutions.
"It too quickly moves away from identifying the need for reform and valuing the state contribution, into a discussion around dollars. When you get to the dollars, it is often combative and not cooperative.
"That's why we need to do much better in how we manage our reform agenda across the public service, both federally and with the states."
"That's why line agencies must have a view, because only they have the relationships that make this work," he said.
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