If this is the most comprehensive review of the public service in 40 years, the government's response is the most weak and disheartening. Thodey and his cohorts could be forgiven if they are this weekend thudding their heads gently against a wall, wondering at their months of effort, an effort which has now met solid resistance from the Morrison government.
The review doesn't pull punches about what's wrong - a siloed public service, narrow-sighted, with poor program delivery, degraded research ability and expertise, no clear or unified purpose, slow to respond, rigid and hierarchical, overly secret and focused on itself. It has out-moded systems for hiring and promoting staff, and systems that encourage timidity and fear of politicisation at the highest levels.
The review also has clear suggestions and recommendations to turn this around. Sadly, they have been largely ignored and rejected by a government that appears intent on business as usual.
Thodey's big themes are ensuring integrity, rebuilding trust and rebuilding research and policy capability. He says trust in the government has fallen in 20 years from 48 per cent to 26 per cent. While there is little corruption, Australia now falls behind New Zealand, Canada and Britain on the Corruption Perceptions Index, dropping from 7th to 13th.
Thodey recommends a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which must cover ministerial staff as well as the public service. He says whistleblowers need better protection, with a stronger "pro-disclosure culture". "Reporting wrongdoing can be harrowing," he says. "Those willing to call out wrongdoing need support."
He calls for new rules covering conflict of interest, including extending cooling-off periods before public servants can take jobs in the private sector. At the moment, those only apply to lobbying jobs. He wants reform to freedom of information laws for more disclosure and so it is fast, cheaper and simple for people to access information. The government says it is "considering" an integrity commission, but as for the rest, not happening.
Thodey says the public service and governments are "drifting apart", with former public service secretaries saying governments no longer want advisers, but "fellow travellers". For their part, ministers are dissatisfied with the ability of the public service to make good policy and deliver services well, and see it as lacking responsiveness and openness to new ideas. They turn to think tanks, consultants, academics, lobbyists, interest groups and the media for advice, no longer seeing the public service as "their primary or even preferred source of advice".
Thodey says given their growing numbers and influence (449 in June), ministerial advisers should be covered by a formal code of conduct, enforced independently, and should get proper training. Public servants should be rotated through ministers offices, perhaps through bringing back the department liaison officer jobs, and ministers should spend time working from their departmental offices. No, says the government.
Thodey says the use of staffing caps has played into reducing in-house capability, with contractors and consultants doing work that used to be done in-house. He suggested rebuilding in-house capability, with "research units", and developing the capability to commission external research, longitudinal studies, expertise from universities and the like. "An immediate priority" should be stronger research in the social and human services, health and education areas. Not happening.
He says career paths are limited and out-moded and called for more movement between departments and from the private sector. Seventy-two per cent of public servants have only ever worked in one agency, he says. More mobility would mean more "diversity of thinking and contestability of ideas", boost capability and make the public service stronger and better, he said, calling for a new mobility system to be in place by July next year. Fat chance.
He also, more radically, suggests international experience for public servants other than those in foreign affairs, suggesting staff from any agency could be considered for postings. And he wants changes to recruitment, which he describes as slow and unsophisticated. More than half of jobs are advertised on one outdated platform (APSjobs) and the median time from job advertisement to having someone in the job is almost five months. Ninety per cent of promotions in 2017-18 went to someone already in the agency. The system is slowed by security vetting, which took an average of more than 18 months at the peak of the backlog. An overhaul is urgent, Thodey said. Smurgent, you can hear the government response.
[Thodey] says career paths are limited and out-moded and called for more movement between departments and from the private sector. Seventy-two per cent of public servants have only ever worked in one agency.
He suggests breaking down the hierarchical "pyramid-like" structures so that people at lower levels can make decisions. Decision-making should be at the lowest practical level. He says a uniform system of pay and conditions would save money - including in the individual agency negotiations - and remove barriers to people shifting agencies. The public service has more than 100 agreements, most of which have five or more pay points inside the classifications.
After the Office for Women was moved from the families department to prime minister's people "on the same level sitting at the next desk doing the same job" were paid up to $10,000 different. Agencies with the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees were the bottom outliers for pay, with a maximum salary for an EL 1 at Aboriginal Hostels at $99,941, compared with Finance at $136,141.
The review heard concerns that the appointment of secretaries reflected "political patronage", and Thodey said without transparency about how appointments were made, it was difficult to refute these claims, leading to loss of trust, and a fear of "speaking truth to power", timidity and risk aversion. He says termination of secretaries must be a last resort, to reduce the prevailing view among public servants that secretaries "can on a whim be removed, pressured to resign or retire, or moved elsewhere". Secretaries should only be sacked with clear grounds, perhaps set out in law. Appointments, too, should be transparent and apolitical.
Almost none of this will happen. What was touted as the biggest shake-up since the 1970s, commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull more than 18 months ago, looks likely to become, ignominiously, mostly ignored.