Australia's most senior public servant has criticised a failure of leadership within key departments and warned against "a lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance" capable of plaguing public policy.
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson believes a wholesale cultural change is needed to ensure public servants obtain diverse and scrutinised opinions before presenting advice to ministers.
"From where I sit, too many departments and too many individual public servants stay within their own sector," he said. "They do not open themselves up to ideas outside their existing knowledge base.
"When we neglect to reach far and wide for ideas we open ourselves up to a lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance and that is not acceptable in any context, but particularly not in a modern public service."
Dr Parkinson said departments needed to be honest with their staff and learn from mistakes including the Rudd government's home-insulation project, which killed four young workers.
Former PM&C secretary Peter Shergold's recent review of public-sector failings found the bureaucracy failed to identify and manage risks associated with the project, leading to devastating consequences.
"We have to engage with risk but when we do we have to be honest," Dr Parkinson said.
"It is our responsibility as leaders to ensure the conditions that led to their deaths are not allowed to happen again. We cannot erase our mistakes but we can learn from them and we have to.
"Not one of those four young Australians are ever going to have the opportunity … to dream the dreams you, your children and my children and hopefully our grandchildren will be able to do."
Dr Parkinson said many public servants did not think about the consequences of their actions beyond their own workforce when advising governments or managing projects.
"We worry about reputation risk, quite sensibly," he said. "We worry about damaging relationships with ministers at times."
Last year, a Department of Finance report prepared by former senior public servant Barbara Belcher found a risk-averse culture was fostering needless regulation and hurting staff morale.
Ms Belcher found internal regulation was often the result of an overreaction to minor mistakes and public embarrassment.
"An entity's appetite for risk can be set satisfactorily only by senior management," she said.
The criticism is far from new. Former auditor-general Ian McPhee has argued the public service is deficient in risk-management processes and more must be done to ensure staff improve performance.
Speaking at an IPAA event in Canberra, Dr Parkinson called on senior management to ensure advice was fiercely contested and debated by colleagues and management.
"This is not about putting people through the wringer and saying 'I'm smarter than you', but about testing and refining ideas," he said.
"We have to create safe places where everyone feels free to advance ideas knowing that we prize collegiality, co-operation and creativity because we believe those things help us achieve collective objectives."
Mr Shergold's report has also prompted senior public servants, including Dr Parkinson, to call for freedom of information laws to be amended to conceal sensitive advice to ministers from public scrutiny.
Industry Department boss Glenys Beauchamp has supported the move, along with Environment Department secretary Gordon de Brouwer. Ms Beauchamp recently said most FoI requests before her department were from journalists looking for stories.
The proposal has been rejected by some, including former top public servant Bill Blick, as self-serving efforts to hide from scrutiny that "might have more credibility if supported by some frank and fearless evidence".