'D' for 'do better': State of the Service Report needs serious work

By Tony Harris
Updated December 1 2023 - 12:12pm, first published 12:00pm

The 2023 State of the Service Report was prepared by the newly appointed Commissioner for the Public Service, Dr Gordon de Brouwer.

It was crafted at a time when the Albanese government says it wants to repair and reform the Australian Public Service.

WATCH: Justine Landis-Hanley and Miriam Webber explain some of the notable results from the latest APS census.

It was drafted in the aftermath of the robodebt royal commission's excoriating report. But you can hardly tell the difference between the 2023 edition and those of de Brouwer's predecessor.

The Commissioner says his 2023 report is balanced: it points out APS achievements and "where it needs to improve". And de Brower explains how agencies are very busily "responding to the Australian government's vision ... for the public sector", "repositioning itself as a model employer", and "working to shape a culture with integrity at its core". But it is not the report that was needed.

We might not expect the commissioner to say truthfully and clearly that the evisceration of the APS by "previous governments" damaged the institution in ways that will require time and considerable effort and resources to repair (something the minister, Katy Gallagher, has alluded to). But we wanted more than that "the APS workforce is continuing to rebuild internal capacity, growing by 6.9 per cent over the 2022-23 financial year".

We know no past report was bold enough to say the current method of appointing departmental heads has (as the Thodey report indicated) helped deliver an insufficiency of integrity, evidenced by the robodebt fiasco, by several reports from the Commonwealth auditor general and by reports of Senate committees.

These reports showed senior executives were too timid to advise ministers about the law governing the making of grants, knowingly acted unlawfully in making grants to please ministers, and conspired to alter reports to protect ministerial policies on live sheep exports. While de Brouwer establishes a first by mentioning robodebt in his State of the Service Report, he overlooks that this is merely one example of the APS doing what ministers want despite the law.

Commissioner for the Public Service, Dr Gordon de Brouwer. Picture by Elesa Kurtz
Commissioner for the Public Service, Dr Gordon de Brouwer. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

To this extent the 2023 report is no different from earlier editions. All we got is that the government wants an "APS that embodies integrity" and that "a taskforce of senior APS leaders examined system-wide improvements to support a pro-integrity culture at all levels". The taskforce presumably included those departmental heads who, former prime minister Scott Morrison told us, did not want any change to the method by which they were appointed (or any diminution to their renumeration packages).

No recent State of the Service Report has discussed how the apolitical nature of the public service is under siege. In line with past commissioners, de Brouwer did not even mention "politicisation of the APS", either because, unlike many commentators, he does not believe it is a problem or because he is too timid to talk about it.

Perhaps Dr de Brouwer understands governments want the public service to act politically. There is a hint of this problem in the recent appointment of the new head of Home Affairs, Stephanie Foster. While the Prime Minister has promised to appoint executives using merit-based processes, this appointment broke that assurance. It used the same old mechanism of selecting, without advertising and presumably without contest, those whose loyalty and trustworthiness is their paramount virtue. Ms Foster presumably meets those criteria. She was previously a relevant deputy secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet when it conspired with Mr Morrison to ensure his appointment to several ministries was achieved with no fuss and no publicity.

The one important APS failing that did receive de Brower's attention was the extent of harassment and bullying evident in some agencies. This weakness deserved the consideration it received, and we look to see in future State of the Service Reports how this problem is addressed and resolved.

Although APS reform apparently involves more than 44 initiatives, there is no evidence the seriousness of the need is matched by legislative action or ministerial enthusiasm. This government's first attempt at legislative reform was widely judged to be insipid but the government resisted all attempts to strengthen its Public Service Amendment Bill so it matched its claimed reform agenda. Dr de Brouwer defended the government's tardy response by indicating reforms should not be rushed. There is certainly no rush.

Perhaps the government's enthusiasm for APS reform should be measured by the $30.8 million it dedicated to the purpose. Somewhat smaller than the $240 million grant Mr Albanese promised for the Hobart stadium.

Dr de Brouwer reminded us the government is working on the equilibration of wages and conditions across the public service, but he made no mention of the industrial disputation experienced over the government's wage offer for the next few years. Senator Gallagher is miffed the unions engaged in industrial action against the Albanese government when it quietly acquiesced to the Morrison government's more draconian approach to wage increases. But there was no consideration of this issue in de Brouwer's report. All in all, you might award a "D" for this State of the Service Report. And the "D" does not mean a distinction. The report offers useful statistics and rightly canvasses government policies the APS needs to consider in the year ahead, such as its goals for minimising greenhouse emissions. Importantly, it discusses how the APS can contribute to a strengthening in democratic values at a time when public trust in Western governments is waning. The "D" suggested for this report improves on the "F" that should be awarded to recent reports.

If the Public Service Board wants to distinguish itself in the 2024 report, it will need to be less considerate of political sensitivities and more direct in canvassing the serious structural problems facing the APS. Whether Dr de Brouwer has the required capacity and willingness will be seen by next December.

  • Tony Harris is a former state auditor general and senior Commonwealth officer.

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