On Monday, the Commissioner of the Australian Public Service, Peter Woolcott, signed off on his State of the Service report for 2019-20. No legislation sets out what the report must contain, but you might think it should be fair and balanced, as well as providing prescriptions for improvement.
On these criteria it fails.
The commission gave much attention to the Commonwealth public service's response to the challenges of the Black Summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It pointed out, for example, how the Bureau of Meteorology helped firefighters by increasing significantly the number of weather forecasts; how Australia's Defence Force assisted front-line firefighters and other responders; and how several Commonwealth agencies provided financial and other resources to those who were affected,directly and indirectly, by the fires.
The report shows how well Commonwealth agencies helped to meet the government's objectives in the face of lockdowns and other restrictions needed to combat the spread of COVID-19. Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office carried the brunt of the load, but many agencies were involved in responding to the challenge. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, for example, identified new data sources that allowed more numerous and timely measurements of economic activity.
Clearly, the Australian Public Service responded well to these monumental challenges. But the State of the Service report is not meant to be a hagiography, where blemishes and failings are overlooked. With respect to the bushfires, the commission should have mentioned how the Commonwealth needed more legislated powers to enable the Defence Force to assist state authorities more promptly. It might have recalled how slowly financial assistance flowed to those affected by fires. And it could have recalled that Australia was not able to lease the aerial water-bombers it needed.
It failed to discuss how unaccountable ministerial offices and contractors, hired directly or indirectly, are misshaping and undermining the public service.
As to COVID-19, as much as Australia appears to have so far escaped with few scars, the commission did not mention the Commonwealth's failure to safeguard aged care residents under the Commonwealth's oversight, the failure to stop the export of vital and scarce personal protective equipment, the confusion of responsibilities between state and federal authorities in the case of the Ruby Princess debacle, and the risks posed by insecure and underpaid staff who allowed the virus to escape quarantine. The State of the Service report spoke about the national cabinet, but avoided mentioning the weaknesses in the structure exhibited by disputes over Victoria's lockdown.
Beyond the bushfires and COVID-19, the Public Service Commission's reporting deficiencies are evident in further matters it did not raise. It failed to discuss the problems inherent in robodebt, or the maladministration of sports grants.
It noted that the government had commissioned a review of the public service, "the largest of its kind in 40 years", led by David Thodey - but it disingenuously said the government had partly or fully accepted 35 of the 40 review recommendations, when many analysts hold that the government fundamentally ignored Thodey's major recommendations. It failed to discuss how unaccountable ministerial offices and contractors, hired directly or indirectly, are misshaping and undermining the public service.
It is somewhat ironic that on the same day, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability reported that these people had been "forgotten and ignored" during the pandemic, leaving them stressed and frightened.
This might be mentioned in next year's report.
If the Australian Public Service Commission were a gardener charged with nurturing the public service, you would consider it a failure for ignoring the many weeds needing attention. The commission's failure supports the recent decision of the Senate Public Finance and Administration Committee to further examine the problems faced by the public service.
- Tony Harris is a former NSW Auditor-General and senior Commonwealth officer.