APS reform bus runs out of solar power

Jul 10, 2024
Beautiful cityscape from Lake Burley Griffin at dusk, at Commonwealth Bridge, from City Centre towards the Parliament House Canberra, Australia.

Andrew Podger, former Public Service Commissioner and advocate for reforms that take account of recent failures in public administration, is circulating a paper on priorities for change. About thirty former senior public servants, most with senior Order of Australia postnominals, have endorsed, without necessarily adopting each specific suggestion, his paper as a basis for a discussion about what they describe as a “once in a generation” opportunity to deliver the urgent need for reform.

The base problem it describes is a government, and senior bureaucratic leadership, which seem to have let all enthusiasm for reform slip away. Labor won the election two years ago with fundamental criticisms of how succeeding coalition governments had debauched and politicised the public service. Probity, transparency and accountability had slipped, markedly, and ministers of the former government did not seem to care about adherence to standards, and, sometimes, even the law. In some fields, such as in welfare portfolios, in defence, and in infrastructure development, public servants had ceased to be independent experts and advisers and become instead servants of the ruling party. The service was losing expertise and professionalism, with functions contracted out to unaccountable consultancies, and often cronies of ministers. Government was handing out money for frankly political purposes, such as in marginal seats. Many ministers did not even pay lip service to the need for integrity. Fiascos such as Robodebt and the administration of grants schemes suggested that corruption was involved. After a short burst of activity, reform seems to have run out of petrol (or solar energy). The government created an anti-corruption commission, but significantly reduced the powers it had once proposed, creating an organisation that has so far proven weak and ineffective. A new public service commissioner, marketed as a man to lead reform, is almost devoid of achievement, and has come to encapsulate a desire to hide the sins of poor administrators around self-serving claims of privacy rights.

A first tranche of reforms was so minor that it can be said that they would not have stopped any of the rorts in the previous government, or made the present administration more efficient, effective or capable. There has been some action in cutting back on consultancies, after the revelation of fresh scandals and abuses, but ministers and senior public servants appear to have no appetite for punishing those who enabled the crookedness, and seem instead focused only on selected prosecutions (though no charges have been laid, yet) and excusing the thousands of consultants whose misgovernance enabled criminal misbehaviour, organised, conscious and continuing lying to government, and massive losses to the public purse.

The revulsion against government for the cronies, by the mates, with profits to the usual suspects has resumed, if sometimes to a different set of smarties, insiders and special pleaders. The inside access of some former Labor minders and apparatchiks is a major public scandal in waiting.

On Podger’s agenda is more work on public service values, and on imposing them on ministerial staff. He argues that experience has demonstrated real risks of senior public servants tempering their frank and fearless advice for fear of the disapproval of ministers. He argues that tenure be restored to Secretaries, while conceding that this should lead to a reduction in their pay, given that secretaries were given extra pay 30 years ago in exchange for foregoing tenure.

He recommends that the public service commissioner get increased powers, vis a vis the secretary of prime minister and Cabinet, over secretarial appointments. The commissioner should be seen, in effect, as the professional head of the APS, with the PM&C secretary regarded as the coordinator general of the APS, responsible for organising the public sector to meet the needs of the prime minister.

There should be much more active management and supervision of post-separation employment. Personally, I think that Podger’s recommendations about this are all too complacent about the extent of the problem and the conflicts of interest involved, and the prevalence or eyebrow raising relationships. Of course, the worst example comes from former politicians and senior military officers and claims that the “problems are being managed” are dubious, if only by the pub test.

Podger says he is concentrating on legislative proposals that have yet to be pursued by the government, but which could complement current proposals, especially by the responsible minister, Katie Gallagher.

The purpose is so that “the public service can be better protected from the risks of administrative and political whim.” A worthy aim, even if the signs are that both the administrators and the ministers have already gone native, and, from the top down, have lost the reforming instinct. It’s the loss of this will to improve and do better that is the major threat to the survival of this government. A good reason to suspect that a driven independent in Fatima Payman may serve as a better spur to Labor than a tame loyal backbencher, prepared to suppress her beliefs and conscience whenever the prime minister wants.

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