A "master-servant" relationship has emerged between ministers and public servants, while some senior bureaucrats are going too far in pleasing governments and supporting their agenda, a former public service commissioner says.
Australian National University public policy professor Andrew Podger has called for the government to strengthen the role of the official overseeing the public service's workforce and has rejected criticism that the bureaucracy has a "misplaced sense of primacy".
Professor Podger in a parliamentary lecture on Tuesday said the government had expanded control over the Australian Public Service since the 1990s and was undermining its skills by using them less.
"In response, some senior public servants have tried to please their 'masters' in other ways, to demonstrate responsiveness by devoting resources to more tactical and immediate support than to strategic and longer term advice," he said.
The former public service commissioner said some top bureaucrats were exercising "promiscuous partisanship", going too far in supporting the elected government's political agenda and doing the same when the government changed.
"They presumably think this demonstrates non-partisanship, but it really just prostitutes the professional apolitical role of the APS, blurring the line between the role of the APS and that of ministerial staff and undermining the confidence of the Parliament and the public in the APS as an apolitical institution," Professor Podger said.
The relationship between politics and the public service had raised more problems in the last 25 years under both major parties, he said.
"The 'thickening' of the interaction between the APS and ministers, coupled with the professionalisation of politics, has changed the relationship from a partnership to one often more akin to 'master-servant', where the 'master' is not just the minister but also the minister's chief of staff and other advisers."
While the Reserve Bank, the Productivity Commission and the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission had kept their skills, other authorities had lost their independence, Professor Podger said.
"I have heard too often the view that the current relationship between ministers and the APS 'works for ministers', and that a more independent civil service offers more political risk than benefits to ministers.
"My suspicion is that this is more often the view of ministerial staff than ministers themselves.
"A government genuinely determined to improve services to Australians and to pursue policies in our long-term interests should value a highly capable civil service."
He criticised the "thin" interim Thodey review findings released in March as being "flavoured with consultants' cliches" and called for more substance in the final report.
Professor Podger said the interim report's view of the public service was complacent, and that problems remained unresolved since previous reviews of the federal bureaucracy.
"Capability deficits remain and seem likely to have gotten worse," he said.
"Reliance on consultants and contractors has increased with highly doubtful (at best) gains in value for money terms and continued negative impact on APS capabilities.
"Capacity for informed purchasing by the APS is also almost certain to have reduced further. And the blurring of boundaries has not been addressed.
"APS funding arrangements have not been fixed despite repeated expert advice for nearly 20 years about the inappropriateness of crude efficiency dividends and, likewise, remuneration policy remains a mess."
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Professor Podger called for "significant repair" to restore the importance of the APS as set out in the constitution and recently backed by High Court judges upholding a public servant's sacking over politically-charged tweets.
The public service commissioner, overseeing the bureaucracy's workforce, should be strengthened and appointed with Parliament's input, he said.
The APS commissioner should also take the lead role in advising on secretary appointments.
Despite commentary that the public service had an inflated sense of importance, Professor Podger said department secretaries were rightly the top official policy advisers to ministers.
Professor Podger, who also led departments overseeing health, administrative services and housing, made his speech following Prime Minister Scott Morrison's address last month to public servants calling for a focus on service delivery.
The Prime Minister also used the slogan "respect and expect" in setting out his view of the public service's role, calling it "the engine room through which a government implements its agenda" and saying it was at its best when it was "really getting on with things".
Professor Podger said he hoped Mr Morrison took a broader view of the bureaucracy's role than as a vehicle for service delivery and implementing policies, saying it was also a source of strategic policy advice.
"No doubt the policy challenges the government will face, including those the PM has already flagged regarding the economy and global uncertainties, will require careful consideration drawing on expert public service advice."