Charles Dickens' opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities sums up 2020 for the public service: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...".
The public service performed at its best in Australia's response to COVID-19. By any international comparison we have achieved excellent results. There were tragic deaths, but the community was protected from what could have been far worse.
The response was not perfect. Some of our most vulnerable citizens, older people in nursing homes, were not adequately protected. Victoria did not manage hotel quarantine well; its reliance on casual, underpaid and badly trained private security guards was tragically misguided. Anyone who still thinks the government's COVIDSafe app is working as intended needs an appointment with reality.
Yet despite these failures and flaws, Australia escaped the death toll and economic devastation experienced in other large developed countries. The public service rolled out policies quickly and effectively.
It was apparent that quarantine, social distancing and other health measures had been thought through in advance, based on sound contingency planning. The Commonwealth, states and territories worked well together, including through the new national cabinet.
Yes there were some weaknesses, like people put on JobKeeper who earned more than they had when employed: but as a whole that scheme kept thousands of businesses afloat and people in jobs. Not every program rolled out quickly is 100 per cent right. That's expected. In a crisis it is better for the public service to try to do too much, with roughness around the edges, than too little.
A positive benefit is the Prime Minister listened to policy advice from his department, Health and Treasury. This contrasts with the approach outlined in his speech to the public service in August last year where he suggested it was up to ministers to determine policy and the public service was left to implement. In the pandemic, to his credit, the Prime Minister has not followed that approach, and heeded public service advice. If this continues it will mean sounder policy and a more fulfilling role for public servants.
The public service at state and territory level also shone in response to the devastating bushfires at the start of the year. Coordination was done well. Huge fires that ranged over the ACT, NSW and Victorian borders were brought under control through cooperation between all three jurisdictions. Allocation of scarce aerial equipment was organised effectively. Mostly, state borders did not impede the firefighting effort.
These were highs; but the lows were very low. In the robodebt affair innocent recipients of Commonwealth payments were hounded for alleged debts. The government, following court cases, finally admitted that robodebt was unlawful. It was always immoral to demand monies from vulnerable people while putting the onus on them to prove they did not owe money. That it lacked legal foundations made it worse. It led to a record $1.2 billion settlement. The public servants involved in implementing and enforcing robodebt have a lot to answer for.
Responsibility ought to rest with the senior leadership: the public service is hierarchical, people in middle and junior ranks have to carry out instructions. Sadly, the people at the top who approved this pernicious scheme appear to have escaped accountability.
Then there was sports rorts. The minister bore much of the blame, and resigned. However public servants failed to protect their minister and did not obtain legal advice when they should have. While they may hope the scandal is forgotten in the COVID-19 emergency, this should not happen. There are lessons for the public service in how not to administer a grants program.
The Australian National Audit Office has uncovered numerous more mundane scandals, including overpayment for land at the Western Sydney Airport site. That is still under investigation for possible illegality. However those investigations turn out, this was not an example of good public administration.
As we look to 2021, the public service would be wise not to rest on the laurels of its good pandemic response, but learn lessons from low points as well. A well performing public sector cannot remain static - good performance relies on continual adaptation and improvement in light of lessons learned.
- Stephen Bartos is a former Finance Department deputy secretary.