As public servants, we were constantly explaining ourselves. That is what it means to be accountable. We reported "up the line" to our superiors and ultimately our minister(s), to the Australian National Audit Office when they came to check how we were running programs and developing policy, to the Ombudsman when someone objected to our decisions or actions, to various tribunals and courts who wanted to be sure we were not stepping outside our legal authority, to parliamentary committees when we appeared before them or answered questions on notice. We explained ourselves to citizens and to clients, to businesses and to community groups, to other governments. We explained in stakeholder forums, in correspondence, in responding to FOI requests, in annual reports. The list is endless.
In principle, explaining yourself is straightforward. In practice, the sheer number and range of people to whom public servants must account makes their professional lives very complex. Most of the time this part of the job is interesting and rewarding - it helps make the work of government dynamic and interesting. Sometimes, however, the demands to be accountable can be overwhelming. To quote Bob Dylan, it can feel like "there's too many people and they're all too hard to please".
This is not a call for sympathy. It is a simple statement of fact. The privilege of working in government carries with it responsibilities, especially the responsibility to explain yourself.
During the life of the current Federal Parliament, we estimate that public servants have spent around 3000 person hours before Senate estimates committees. Most of this time was spent answering straightforward but important questions. Sometimes the line of questioning was obscure. Sometimes the really hard questions didn't get asked. Despite the impression in reporting, most of this work is not the stuff of high-stakes partisan politics.
To understand why and how being held to account can sometimes put public servants in the political spotlight, it helps to understand just how complex the accountability ecosystem is, with many competing pressures. There are extensive vertical requirements such as those imposed by the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, where public servants and their agencies explain what they're going to do and why (in corporate plans), and then how well they did it (in annual reports). Then there are the horizontal processes, such as the ANAO and FOI. There is also the overarching expectation that public servants will work help build and maintain public trust in government. Yet there can also be an impulse to downplay poor performance, or to minimise criticism of government. There have been several high-profile cases of the latter during the current parliament, with robodebt among the most prominent.
Oversight by Parliament is a particularly complex and demanding part of the system. In our Washminster system, the executive - the arm of government to which public servants are directly accountable - arises from within Parliament, but its interests and functions are often in tension with the legislature's. And Parliament has legal power to enforce its interests. Similarly, courts and tribunals oversee the many legal obligations imposed on government, such as the Privacy Act and freedom-of-information legislation, exercising their own considerable powers to call public servants to account.
In our increasingly adversarial politics, such accountability processes can be politicised. In effect, the immediate demands of the partisan fight can swamp transparency and accountability. Such partisan politics is heating up as we approach the next federal election, and public servants can be caught in the crossfire. A minister might pressure the public service to be less than frank in its dealings with bodies like the ANAO or parliamentary committees. MPs may berate or even humiliate public servants, treating them as proxies for their ministers rather than as professionals in an institution that endeavours to be apolitical.
Sometimes, accountability itself can be weaponised. Some parliamentarians and some ministers - and some public servants - seem to believe being accountable is a road block to the "real" business of government. Under this view, "playing the game" involves finding clever ways to obfuscate, block, or otherwise impede the mechanisms designed to ensure open, transparent and accountable government. This attitude, which has always been present in the system, seems to be gaining in prominence. The overheated response to a senior public servant's wink illustrates this febrile atmosphere. Regardless of the merits of the specific case, bringing the public service into the centre of the political fight in this way clearly risks undermining the legitimacy and authority of the public service. If trust in government is declining - despite the early COVID bump in the survey data - these episodes risk making matters worse.
This is not just unfortunate and corrosive of good government, it is ultimately self-defeating. In the long run, a more accountable public service can better serve the government of the day and help it avoid the moral hazards of power. If we're seeing more frequent and more severe breaches of public probity and ethics and more egregious efforts to avoid accountability, that may in part be due to a failure to adequately manage the tensions that can arise between the interests of the government and the demands of external scrutiny. Senator Rex Patrick's recent decision to name a PM&C public servant who had refused his FOI request illustrates the thorny situation that can arise between Parliament's powers and the expectations of the executive. The department's response was not only to defend the officer, but to claim that "unjustified personal attacks, such as this, against officers of the APS directly undermine public confidence in Australia's democratic institutions". Whatever the merits of the specific case, this does indeed seem to be a possible consequence of this incident.
Negotiating the complex, interconnected accountability ecosystem clearly calls for all the skill, experience and judgment that public servants can muster. This task, in fact, constitutes one of the major ways that public servants exercise their agency (i.e. their legitimate influence on the development and implementation of government policy) within our system of government. The first duty of any public servant facing an accountability body such as the ANAO or a Parliamentary Committee is to stop and think about exactly what is at stake.
In the vast majority of cases, the issue is not a life-and-death political struggle between the executive government's right to make decisions and implement policy and the meddling of an officious auditor or a belligerent MP seeking a gotcha moment. Nor is it usually a struggle between a self-serving and mendacious ministry and the demands of a righteous Parliament or a crusading office-holder. Most calls for accountability are politically low-key. They can still be stressful and difficult. They can still be professionally risky and frustrating. But only in very rare cases are there genuinely high matters of state or policy at stake that warrant anything other than full compliance with the strictures of accountable public administration. If such a case arises, the public servants need to be very sure of their judgment in the matter and recognise the risks not only to their professional career but to the institution they serve.
Public servants who have agency, who have influence, who have appropriate and properly authorised power, can and should exercise that agency with and through their relationships with bodies like parliamentary committees, the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General, and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. To exercise this agency, they need to understand the nuances and context of their accountability, but equally importantly they need a clear signal from leaders in their own organisations and central departments - and from ministers - that this accountability is a core tenet of good government.
- Russell Ayres is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Canberra. Wendy Jarvie is an adjunct professor at the University of NSW, Canberra. Trish Mercer is a visiting fellow at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.