A serious reform package that should attract wide support

Jul 11, 2024
Canberra Parliament House at Twilight

The proposals set out in the discussion paper released last week are intended to offer a coherent and comprehensive package to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and capacity of the APS and its integrity. The burning platform of Robodebt and other recent public administration failures provide this once-in-a-generation opportunity for genuine and lasting reform, one that must not be missed.

The proposals draw heavily on the recommendations of the Thodey Review of the APS, the Robodebt Royal Commission and various recent Parliamentary Committee reports. In some cases, recommendations have been modified or extended to ensure greater coherence and to build a package that might attract wide support from across the Parliament, within the APS and from the Australian public.

A central proposal is for Secretaries to retain tenure to a position at level, but with the expectation that they would be rotated from time to time. This would be a return to the arrangements that operated under the Hawke Government. Importantly, such a change would trigger a review of Secretaries’ remuneration (particularly the 20% increase when tenure was removed). It would also be accompanied by a much stronger merit-based appointment process and firmer professional performance management of Secretaries along the lines recommended by Thodey and explicitly endorsed by the Royal Commission. Secretaries could still, like all other APS employees, be dismissed for reasons of incompetence, incapacity for health reasons or improper behaviour, and for redundancy.

Robodebt and other recent cases of integrity failure are not just the result of some individuals lacking the necessary character, but also of the system of rewards and penalties that have evolved in political and bureaucratic practice over the last three decades.

This proposed change would help to rebalance rewards and penalties: to remove the penalties (terminations or non-reappointment) that have at times been applied to those doing the right thing, and the rewards (appointments, promotions) so clearly provided to those who have done the wrong thing. Firmer performance management should also contribute to this rebalancing, penalising those who do not meet their statutory responsibilities to uphold and promote the values – including by giving impartial, frank and fearless advice and keeping records – and rewarding those who do.

Getting this right for Secretaries is essential for ensuring the rebalancing flows on to their SES (who also are required under the law to promote as well as uphold the Values), and to the rest of the APS.

A number of the proposals are aimed at better articulating the respective roles of the APS, ministerial advisers, and other Commonwealth employees. They include a more substantial revision of the APS Values to better reflect Westminster principles. The explanatory memorandum for the original 1999 Public Service Bill stated that ‘The Values are designed to … provide the philosophical underpinning for the APS … reflect the expectations of the relationship between public servants and the Government, the Parliament and the Australian community …’ The changes in 2014 to simplify the Values lost much of this philosophical underpinning, and simply adding ‘stewardship’ as the latest PSA Amendment Act provides does not solve the problem.

The articulation proposed is a variation on the recommendations of the Thodey Review. It would be structured around APS relations with the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public (reflecting the primary purpose of the Public Service Act set out in s3), and its internal workplace relations. This would help to ensure they encompass core Westminster principles (including by putting ‘merit’ back into the Values).

One of the benefits of such a structure is that it would facilitate the articulation of the distinct values that should guide the roles and responsibilities of the Parliamentary Service, ministerial advisers and the electoral and other staff of Senators and Members. Some values would be the same, such as commitment to serve the Australian public, but others would differ because, for example, some work for the legislature not the executive (and hence their accountability is not related to ministerial responsibility), and some are not required to be non-partisan.

In addition to articulating the respective values of different groups of Commonwealth employees, the code of conduct for ministerial advisers should be included in the legislation. Surprisingly, this was not done as part of the amendments to the MOP(S) Act passed late last year even though it was recommended by Thodey and by Jenkins, and explicitly endorsed by the Robodebt Royal Commission. That needs to be corrected.

Other proposals relate to the respective roles of the APS Commissioner (as ‘Professional Head of the APS’) and the Secretary of PM&C (as ‘Coordinator-General of the APS’), merit-based appointment processes for statutory officers, limiting political appointments to ambassadorships, requiring APS Commissioner approval for deputy secretary positions and tightening the control over the size of the SES, requiring agencies to have merit staffing plans, constraining the use of consultants and contractors and legislating for regulating conflicts of interest associated with post-separation employment.

The paper acknowledges the measures already taken by the Government and notes that more reform has been foreshadowed. It also draws on a number of recent Parliamentary inquiries. This should ensure the proposals receive serious attention by the Government and the Parliament. The trade-offs the package of proposals encompasses to promote efficiency as well as integrity, and the firm preservation of the Westminster principle of serving the elected Government as well as the principles of accountability, impartiality, merit and serving the public, should attract serious consideration by the Opposition too, as it reflects on the causes of the failures in administration under its watch in government.

The package of proposals should attract support from across the APS who have not been well served by some of the APS leadership over the last decade or more, and from the wider Australian community who deserve much better public administration.

 

Republished from THE MANDARIN, July 9, 2024

 

For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Restoring integrity to the Australian Public Service

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