Accountability in the public sector: Part 2

Apr 20, 2021

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the broad role and capability of the public service to assist the government in policy development and its implementation. Part 2 discusses in more detail how accountability is presently working (or not working) in practice and proposes some improvements.

The administration of public moneys

Yesterday’s article concluded that in principle the framework is in place to ensure that public servants perform their tasks in implementing government policies, ethically and with integrity. However, in both the case of the sports grants and, more recently, grants from the Safer Communities Fund, it would appear that the rules were not followed, and the ministerial intervention to alter the recommended merit-based allocation of these grants remains unexplained and unjustified.

It is true that the Audit Office did highlight that the allocation of the sports grants did not follow proper procedure, but can we rely on that? No such enquiry has yet exposed the rule-breaking in the case of the Safer Communities grants, although last week the Auditor General did announce that he proposed to audit that program’s administration. But the relevant Minister, Dutton, has moved on, and in any event, is the risk of a critical audit report sufficient to ensure that rules covering the allocation of grants moneys are properly enforced?

Instead, should the rules be reinforced by requiring relevant ministers to:

  1. Publicly release in advance the criteria that will be used to determine the eligibility and relative merit for all program grants before calling for applications, and
  2. Report all instances of ministerial intervention to change the recommended allocation of program grants to the Parliament, with a statement of the minister’s reasons in each case, and within six months of any such intervention?

The role of information in improving service provision and accountability

But beyond the administration of program grants, there are several other aspects of public service administration, especially recently and mostly relating to program performance, where I think a lot of people have legitimate concerns about how well accountability is working in practice.

First, there is the issue of how willing the Government and the public service are to provide information. Frankly, good policy depends upon the public being informed. Without such information about how government policies are working, and are expected to work, it is more difficult to identify where policy changes are needed and to gain public acceptance for those changes.

Support for the economic and social reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, was built by making as much information available as possible. That way the public could see the need for reform and how the reforms would work to achieve their objectives. But today, that sort of information is eschewed. Instead, we have sterile arguments marked by an absence of evidence – think of the past debate around climate change for example.

Equally important, today much less information is available about program performance and evaluation, and many departments are less willing to engage in public discussion with interested parties than in the past. In my view, this loss of evidence about program performance and discussion must come at a detriment to good policy development. And I think the reason why the Government, and I suspect its advisers, are unwilling to obtain evidence and engage is because they see such information as potentially embarrassing, and/or an inconvenient limitation on their freedom of decision making.

In my experience, however, if the public service is to fulfil its mandate as an independent source of expert advice in the pursuit of good policy outcomes, then the public service can and should be on the front foot in finding ways to make as much relevant information as possible publicly available.

Second, the public service also holds a wealth of information about individual citizens. In my view, there should be a presumption in favour of allowing each citizen access to the information relating to them and their family. Indeed, I recall when freedom of information was first introduced, the decision was made by the Heads of the Departments of Social Security and Employment to give pensioners and job seekers respectively ready access to their personal files, without having to go through the procedures demanded under freedom of information. I was Head of the Employment Department at the time, and I can vouch that the fairness of the administration of job seekers’ claims for assistance improved markedly as a result.

By contrast, today I think that too often the requirements of freedom of information are used to frustrate applicants seeking information. For example, in relation to migration and visa claims some information, such as security clearance material could be appropriately withheld. However, I fear that too often other information, such as how a decision-maker came to their conclusion that a relationship was non-genuine, is also being withheld.

I want to add, however, that I think any concern with policy implementation and the provision of information should not be directed at the middle-level public servants who undertake the day-to-day duties of program administration. Rather where there are faults in program administration it usually reflects faults in program design and/or decisions made higher up. For example, think of Robo-debt, where any serious thought would have warned against relying on tax records to establish the current income of unemployed people.

The administration of migration is another example of poor implementation where the lengthening queue of contested visa claims is of itself encouraging the “people smugglers”. In both these examples, the critical decisions would have involved ministers, but it must be questioned how good was the advice, or was it excessively geared to giving the answer that ministers wanted to hear? And did the advice fail to warn about the dangers of maintaining present policy arrangements – dangers that risk the Government’s own longer-term objectives?

That brings me to my third concern about today’s public service. I wonder if some of those at the top adequately pursue their duty to ensure administrative integrity. For example, the allocation of both the recent Sports and Safer Communities grants raises questions about the public service as well as the Ministers. On the evidence, the public servants failed to establish the legal authority for the Minister to take over the distribution of the Sports grants. I also think the public servants should have insisted on warning both Ministers of the need to establish and document their reasons for any changes in the recommended distribution of the grants and their eligibility.

And finally, I strongly suspect that the report by the Head of the APS into the Sports Rorts failed to raise, let alone answer some of these key questions, and I cannot reconcile his reported evidence that was used to acquit the Minister of the most serious charge, with the evidence cited by the Auditor General. But we cannot know for sure what is in that report, so long as the Government relies on the pathetic excuse that it is a Cabinet document.

What worries me most about these recent events involving public service integrity is that the leadership do not seem to have insisted on due process being followed as laid down in the law. Instead, 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. 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.

To sum up, in my opinion, public servants do need to be responsive to the government of the day. In our democracy, Governments are elected to govern and are held accountable at elections, and if the public servants are to win the Government’s trust and be effective, their advice needs to be responsive to the Government’s values, priorities, and announced policies. But equally, if public servants are going to add value to policy development, they must take advantage of their expertise and knowledge and give their honest advice frankly and fearlessly. It is a question of finding the right balance between responsiveness and independent expertise and understanding the most effective way to present your case, given the minister’s frame of reference.

Because of this difficult balancing act, however, the role of the public service in relation to integrity is somewhat different from some of the other agencies being considered by this forum – such as the judiciary, the Parliament, the Ombudsman, and the Auditor General. Each of these bodies exists to uphold the law and/or to hold the Government to account. They effectively serve only one master. However, while the public service is bound to uphold the law, and is also bound by its code of conduct, the public service is also part of executive government.

But that said, I also think that the public service should be on the front foot seeking to improve the integrity of public administration wherever it can. Public servants should be on the lookout for ways to release more and better information and improve public accountability. We know that public understanding based on good information is critical to good government and good policy development and implementation. And I like to think that is the key reason why most of us opted to join the APS in the first place.

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