Robust and transparent processes for hiring and firing departmental secretaries is one of the steps needed to see the public service's return of "frank and fearless" advice, a former secretary of the prime minister's department has warned.
Former Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Mike Keating, who served under the Paul Keating government until 1996, said the public service was facing a decline, resulting in the erosion of capability and quality advice.
A report by ex-Telstra chief executive David Thodey, released to government in late 2019, said departments had become more concerned with reputational risk, leading to a shortfall in research and strategic policy skills.
It recommended the APS Commissioner and the PM&C secretary play a joint and equal role in suggesting candidates for department secretaries and provide clear information on processes relating to the appointment, performance management and termination of them.
But in his appearance at a Centre for Public Integrity event on Thursday, the former senior public servant said the Morrison government's rejection of Thodey's recommendations failed to address the sector's inability to provide frank and fearless advice.
"Instead, concerns will continue that the present process for the appointment and termination does not follow due process and can reflect political patronage and political loyalty," Mr Keating said.
"Many fear that this denial of due process has damaged the ability and willingness of public servants to speak truth to power for fear of losing their jobs."
Mr Keating reflected on his own time in government, nearly three decades ago, when his advice was appreciated by ministers.
He said that senior public servants now needed to strike the balance between responsiveness to ministers and providing independent expertise and advice.
"Public service policy advisers do need to win the trust of the government of-the-day. Without that trust, it is much less likely that the public servants will be listened to let alone effective," Mr Keating said.
"But if that trust is established and maintained, then in my experience, the ministers that I worked with - from both major political parties - did value frank and fearless advice.
"Ministers usually appreciate that public servants have a degree of expertise in their policy area, based especially on their research, contacts and knowledge of client needs, and what has worked well and what has not in the past."
Sports rorts and questions surrounding misuse of the Safer Communities fund were two examples Mr Keating pointed to as senior public servants failing in their roles.
Without insisting on following due process, public servant advice was dismissed and the department's integrity was brought into question, he said.
"In the absence of penalties for flouting the relevant laws, public service leaders too often seem to feel that they need to prove their loyalty and that their first duty is to protect the government," Mr Keating said.
"I worry when this comes at a cost to integrity, especially as it is these most senior people who should lead by example and who are responsible for defining the culture of their organisation."
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