No government can achieve good outcomes without good policy advice. The public service is one of its main sources of such advice, which means it is in everyone's interest that its advice is high quality. Good policy advice addresses important problems, is well informed, balanced, practical, provides realistic options, and takes account of different perspectives (see numerous references, including from the Public Service Commission and the Australian National Audit Office).
The trouble is, would anyone ever know if the public service provides such advice? The secrecy and mystery surrounding policy means the public can rarely tell whether bureaucratic advice is of high quality.
At the Institute of Public Administration Australia's Victoria state summit last month, a senior Victorian public servant took the brave step of suggesting that policy advice provided to cabinet by the public service should no longer be confidential. The idea would horrify traditional Canberra mandarins, but is well worth considering.
It is possible for public servants to hide bad advice - poorly argued, unrealistic, based on opinion rather than evidence, and unsupported by analysis - behind cabinet confidentiality. When ministers follow that advice down a path that harms Australia's interests, the public servants concerned are rarely if ever held to account. The people who gave the advice remain invisible. Often the effects of a policy takes years to become obvious, by which time the original minister and public servants who gave the advice have moved on and a future government wears the blame.
If advice were made public, it would be possible for stakeholders to make their own judgments about the quality of the advice. This would make policy advice far more contestable - that is, open to competition. Senior public servants in Canberra often say that policy is contestable, pointing to alternative sources of policy advice provided to ministers by thinktanks, ministerial advisers, academics, political parties and others. That is a self-serving claim. Public servants still provide most of the advice to ministers. A major difference between it and most external advice (although not advice from ministerial staff) is that, generally, public service advice is confidential.
Ministers have few yardsticks against which to measure the quality of advice. If, however, they are in office long enough and move between portfolios, they can compare quality standards between different departments, and can also assess changes over time. A period out of office can sharpen perspectives. Some ministers in the Rudd cabinet who served under previous Labor governments expressed concerns about the quality of advice they were receiving. Similar concerns have been noted among ministers in Tony Abbott's government, who were previously Coalition ministers under John Howard. Several are voting with their feet, preferring to obtain their policy advice through commissioned reviews.
The leadership of the Australian Public Service in various speeches and documents, including the Ahead of the Game review, recognised the need to improve policy but has not so far embraced transparency. Far too often, senior public servants say that, if their advice was open to scrutiny, it could no longer be ''frank and fearless''. That is a feeble excuse. We have no way of knowing, without openness, whether the public service is fearless. It might be that policy advice these days is cowardly and sycophantic: the only people who know enough to tell us otherwise are policymakers themselves and they have a conflict of interest. Making advice more open is entirely consistent with frankness. It would enhance trust in the public service, which has plummeted in recent decades.
There are reservations. Advice about appointments - that is, whether someone is suitable for a senior post on a board or committee - should remain confidential to safeguard personal privacy. Policy advice about budget savings or spending must be kept confidential, at least until the budget is announced. About two decades ago, the ACT government had a disastrous experiment with an open budget process; every lobby group came out of the woodwork arguing for special treatment. The process raised hundreds of calls for more spending on special interests, but no one was prepared to suggest how to pay for them. Difficult budget decisions about trade-offs need to be made by ministers with the benefit of confidential advice. There is, however, an argument that the grounds for the advice, the data and analysis on which it is based, could be made public after the budget.
Policy advice affecting national security or commercial negotiations is and should continue to be confidential for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, there is far too frequent recourse to ''security'' or ''commercial-in-confidence'' grounds for keeping information from the public, and a more open approach to cabinet documents might encourage openness elsewhere.
One of the main vehicles for advice to government is cabinet submissions, currently locked away for 20 years before release. They won't crumble into dust like vampires if exposed to sunlight. Public and media critics of the public service are likely to be surprised by the quality of submissions: mostly, they have a depth of analysis, canvass views from interested departments, outline the implications of proposed policies and provide well-considered options. Their release would lead to a much better informed public debate.
That is how New Zealand does it: there is no protection for cabinet documents under its Official Information Act (which provides for security and commercial exceptions). If you want to see submissions and cabinet minutes on public service reform, you can find them on the State Services Commission website. If you want to see Treasury's incoming government brief or its various reports and analyses, they are all published online. Greater transparency does not appear to have harmed New Zealand, regarded internationally as a leader in good public administration.
The current levels of secrecy around policy in Australia shield public servants from scrutiny but are not necessarily good for governments. If, for example, the incoming briefing to the government from the Treasury had been made public last year, as it was with the previous change of government, then the budget problems Australia faces would have been much better understood by the public and media.
Ministers may be wary of possible negative headlines when they don't take public service policy advice and decide on an alternative course. If that is the case, then the argument that the policy advising playing field is contestable is undermined - because ministers have no hesitation about going against policy advice from the other kinds of reviews or studies it commissions. For policy to be genuinely open to competition, ministers should have the same option to reject public service advice that they do to reject advice from elsewhere. Indeed, it would strengthen democracy and accountability if that were the case.
A further objection is that opening up policy advice to public view might expose the public service to lobbying by interest groups wanting to sway policy in their favour. This would need to be tested. It could be the reverse. In some policy areas, the strength of evidence and analysis put forward by the public service might silence self-interested lobbyists because arguments would be clear and inescapable. Sometimes, lobbying of ministers occurs because stakeholders have no trust that ministers are being given a complete picture by public service advisers: this, too, might cease. Experience is likely to be different in the varied fields of policy advice.
For the public service to regain the trust and confidence of ministers and the public, it needs to be open to new ways of work. A debate around policy confidentiality is one good starting point.
Stephen Bartos is executive director, Canberra, at ACIL Allen Consulting and a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org