The review of the public service established by the Turnbull government in 2018 has largely fluffed it.
The reviewers, David Thodey (chair), Maile Carnegie, Glyn Davis, Gordon de Brouwer, Belinda Hutchinson and Alison Watkins, pumped up their prospects with claims about setting the public service up for the 2030s etc. They've not met even modest ambitions. They boosted themselves as the most significant thing since the 1970s Coombs royal commission but their efforts are hugely inferior to that inquiry. Indeed, the Thodey review falls a long way short of the standards of the Gibson and McLachlan royal commissions after World War I and the Reid review in the early 1980s.
In general terms, the Thodey review's (hereinafter mainly referred to as "Thodey") failings include, but are not confined to, the following four issues.
- Weaknesses in gathering evidence, analysis and making convincing arguments in support of its recommendations. It too often ties itself up in a fog a platitudes and reaches rock bottom when the authors of the report include personal bon mots in it. For example, on page 69 Ms Watkins quotes herself as saying "our experience at Coca-Cola Amatil suggests that with any change program, you must get the fundamentals right". Wow! Better than getting fundamentals wrong, presumably.
- Historical ignorance, seemingly wilful, that enables it to ignore the Reid review and the four public service reform government white papers that wrapped up the implementation of both the Coombs and Reid reports. Thus, the lessons of how major reports on the public service can be successfully implemented are neglected and fake history raises its head. For example, Thodey claims that the Coombs commission's proposals "were addressed over a 30-year period". That's not true - Coombs was wrapped up in 10 years, with the last of the government white papers published in the mid 1980s. This is not a trivial point, as it's likely the 30-year furphy may have encouraged Thodey to neglect the lessons of the highly successful implementation of the Coombs and Reid reports.
- A baffling misunderstanding about the fundamental workings of government and its machinery. Thus, Thodey envisages the Secretaries Board having "primary responsibility for leading the APS as an integrated organisation". So move over cabinet and ministers - you've been usurped. Further, Thodey doesn't consider the political sensitivities around such things as evaluation of government programs, the publication of internal research and the promotion of a "pro-integrity culture", as worthy as these things are. For example, the review thinks the Secretaries Board can "ensure systematic evaluation of programs and policies". Well, good luck when it knocks on the door of Minister [at the time of writing] Bridget McKenzie to evaluate her "administration" of sundry government grants. That would be sure to excite whatever scummy fragment remains of her "pro-integrity culture".
- A failure to make its recommendations specific and comprehensive, too often leaving work it should have done to others. So, while sensibly recommending principles to assist with machinery of government changes and with decisions about the outsourcing of functions, Thodey refrains, after 18 months on the job, from making suggestions about what those principles should be.
These and other failings have helped the government, with the sneaky connivance of the Secretaries Board, to knock off some of Thodey's most important and sensible recommendations, for example those dealing with the roles of the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Commissioner, procedures for the appointment and tenure of secretaries, cleaning up the abominable mess into which pay and conditions policy and administration have been allowed to degenerate, legislating a code of conduct for ministerial staff and having the Intergenerational Report prepared by the Parliamentary Budget Office.
To use one of the most frequent phrases of the Thodey review, swathes of its report are not "fit for purpose". Meanwhile, as the Secretaries Board is burdened with loads of work on the implementation of Thodey's surviving recommendations, it gets the government to stick the short sword into the best of them.
More positively, the government has knocked off several of the Thodey review's brain spasms, for example a prerequisite that persons should have worked in two or more portfolios "or sectors" to be eligible for appointment to the SES, expecting at least 50 per cent of ministerial staff involved in policy advising to have had public service experience, establishing an "Integrated Strategy Office" in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a Department of Digital Technology, among other unworthies of that ilk.
As it's impossible here to deal with all 40 of Thodey's recommendations, let's consider a few that might elucidate the misgivings expressed in the above paragraphs.
On the basis of a largely unevidenced claim that the public service "is failing to recruit people with diverse skill sets", Thodey recommends "a targeted program to recruit external mid-career and senior professionals" to be "modelled on graduate recruitment". The report does not, however, consider how such a program might fit with the current promotion system that allows all and sundry to apply for vacancies as they arise on merit. Such considerations are irrelevant for graduate recruitment, as those recruits enter at the base level where internal competition is irrelevant.
Going on to exaggerate the value of diversity in staffing as an end in itself, Thodey recommends the Secretaries Board set a "2030 diversity goal" supported by "targets". However, the report makes no practical suggestions about how such goals and targets might be met, nor does it discuss the experience of legislated requirements for equal employment opportunity plans in the 1980s. Presumably that kind of reflection is ruled out by the innovation mindset that simply requires that something new be done. Let's leave it up to a suggested "innovation incubator", heaven help us.
Finally, it is unfortunate that Thodey's consideration of recruitment doesn't extend to the possibly illegal use of tens of thousands of contractors and consultants to perform the work of line positions in the public service. These habits are undermining merit recruitment and are opening up huge scope for nepotism, patronage and favouritism in public service employment, the avoidance of which are at the heart of the reasons for having a Public Service Act. That is to say, Thodey has turned a blind eye to what is probably the most important contemporary problem in public service management.
Thodey makes some good points on the state of public service policy advising, which many see to have declined significantly. The review doesn't help its case, however, when it approvingly quotes an anonymous "current secretary" who makes the unqualified claim that "the APS has lost its analytical capacity". Conclusion: that "current secretary" has lost her/his analytical capacity except to the extent of remaining anonymous. More importantly, Thodey's consideration of such weaknesses in policy advising are confined to the supply side. Sensible suggestions are made about building up staff capacity, improving research and analysis and evaluation. The review neglects, however, the demand side, and seems to assume that some variant of Say's law will work to consume such better policy advice as is produced. Alas, there is a doubt about the extent to which the Morrison government wants public service policy advice.
In his recent book on the Department of the Treasury, a former Treasury officer, Paul Tilley, says Mr Morrison's view was "that the department should not have a policy agenda of its own, with its role being limited to advising on and implementing government policies". This is a depressingly narrow conception of the role of the public service in policy. Tilley also refers to a case where Treasury was asked to provide a long list of options only, it being reassured that the ministerial office "would of course put policy advice over the top" of those options. That is to say, there are problems with demand for public service policy advice that Thodey ignores.
The government then ices the policy advising cake, in a manner of speaking, by rejecting significant sections of the related Thodey recommendations with the backing of the Secretaries Board.
Pay and conditions
Thodey says that "the principal issue for the review is inconsistent and complex pay ranges and conditions". That is to say, the review is dealing with symptoms, not causes. The principal issue it should have addressed is the absurd policy that has given rise to the present dysfunctional shambles. It doesn't. Thodey is right to recommend more consistency of pay and conditions, but the report provides no policy basis on which that can be achieved. The review hasn't appreciated the economic absurdity of linking pay and productivity at the enterprise level, nor has it been able bring itself to say that pay and conditions should be fixed on the basis of market comparisons on an occupational category basis, via central negotiations through the Public Service Commission.
That is to say, Thodey has made it easy for the government, and aided and abetted the ever co-operative Secretaries Board, to knock off sensible recommendations - with the only consolation being that, in doing so, the government has also put paid to the review's unanalysed, unsubstantiated and foolish suggestion that the Remuneration Tribunal, an organisation with a notable record of failure, should set pay and conditions for the SES.
The Secretaries Board
The Secretaries Board has had an undistinguished career, and the more it exposes itself the less reason there is to have confidence in it. Nevertheless, Thodey burdens the board with a huge workload on implementing the review's recommendations, and managing and co-ordinating activities into the far distant future. The fact is the board has no executive powers, and Thodey's recommendation that it should be given some has been refused by the government on the board's advice. That is to say, the board has denied itself the executive power it needs to cope with the roles it has under the accepted Thodey recommendations. It's shot itself in the foot.
On the other hand, the notion that the board - a glorified inter-departmental committee whose 20 or so members have busy day jobs - can do all that's now on its plate, is hoping against hope even if it had been given real legal powers. It's being set up to fail.
Making the board, together with someone designated as a "transformation leader", principally responsible for the Thodey recommendations accepted by the government, many of which are worthwhile, fails to appreciate that in such matters the critical component of success is having a minister or group of ministers taking primary responsibility. If Thodey had studied the implementation of the Coombs and Reid reports the review would have understood that.
So, implementation of the accepted Thodey recommendations should be made the responsibility of a public administration sub-committee of cabinet, chaired by the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Cabinet, and including the Minister for Finance, the Attorney-General and a couple of other interested ministers. They could be supported by a group of the heads of their departments. Only such a group can bring together the necessary executive power and authority and command of resources to deal with what now should be done. Fobbing this off to officials is not good enough. Political leadership is required, and a Senate committee would do well to take an interest.
It's easy to be disappointed with the Thodey review's report and its immediate reception. It's not surprising though, as its terms of reference were sloppy, most of its members had no obvious backgrounds for the task, it was not independent in that it was run from the Prime Minister's Department, and its methods left much to be desired - especially its failure to hold public hearings. Consistent with Thodey's recommendations, there should be an evaluation of this exercise, from which valuable lessons could be learned. Why, a Senate committee might ask Mr Thodey and Messrs Carnegie, Davis, de Brouwer, Hutchison and Watkins to front up and explain themselves, in the best traditions of public accountability.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com