Asleep at the wheel of public service reform

Sep 19, 2023
Main entrance to the Parliament of Australia, Canberra.

The rehabilitation of the federal public service is a slow waltz – one step forward, one sideways and a couple backwards. To stretch the metaphors and with apologies to Don Gibson’s fine 1961 hit song, while the administrative ship of state is adrift in a sea of heartbreak, its principal stewards seem half asleep at the wheel.

For example:

  • The Public Service Amendment Bill is pathetically inadequate.
  • The Members of Parliament (Staff) Amendment Bill is a little better but it errs seriously in carving out the ministerial consultant provisions and it doesn’t include a code of conduct, as recommended by the 2019 Thodey Review of the public service, possibly because the staff have kicked against it and the Government has caved in.
  • It’s going on three months since the Robodebt Royal Commission reported without a boo from the Government on its recommendations while disciplinary and other action against those mentioned in a sealed section of that report seems to be moving with the slowness of the bleak case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce.
  • It’s now eight months since a review was begun of procedures for statutory appointments, a report that could have been finalised in a month or two at the most. Where is it?
  • Negotiations for pay increases have hit the rocks in significant part because the government’s remuneration policy is fatally flawed in that it does not seek to benchmark against levels of remuneration in the outside labour market for comparable work. Rather it relies on indexes of wage and price movements, a comprehensively wrong policy that no model employer would use.
  • True to its secretive ways, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet won’t say how many of the Thodey review recommendations have been implemented after they’ve been sitting around for four years – not many would be a safe bet.

Let’s consider the Public Service Amendment Bill.

The only things of any worth in it are the requirements for capability reviews and “long term insight reports”, although these are of no great moment. The rest of the Bill is crazy.

It proposes a “purpose statement” for the 100 or so Public Service agencies. It will be decided by the shadowy, unaccountable Secretaries Board without Parliament being given a say. The “statement” will sit uneasily with the purpose clauses in the legislation creating 80 or so statutory authorities and it is likely to confuse rather than help. Can anyone think of any organisation anywhere in the world that allows its staff to determine its purpose? Even in the arcane world of public administration absurdity of this depth is rare.

The Bill also contains a provision for positions to be classified at the lowest possible level, rather than at the most appropriate one. But the provision is only rhetorical; there are no means of enforcement and no specific accountability envisaged. A special irony is that this proposal was devised in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet which now is more flush with senior SES staff than at any time in its history. And that’s the point. The public service now has at least three or four times the number of positions at the Deputy Secretary level than can be justified and this is sure to be causing all sorts of management inefficiency and coagulaton. Rather than echoic rhetoric, the bloated top levels of the public service need to be scaled back. Breaths should not be held on this account however because that would require some self-sacrifice by personnel in those levels, an elusive product to be sure.

Yet the craziest provision the Bill proposes to include is the notion of “stewardship” as a value in the Public Service Act. As the learned commentator Richard Mulgan has observed, “stewardship” has become a “term du jour” and at its slightest murmuring many go weak at the knees.

The notion is not new. It was powerfully in evidence in the federal public service in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It’s just been given a new descriptor and as it has become more talked about in modern times so its force has waned. It’s rather like “leadership” – the more it’s touted, the weaker it gets. Can anyone remember Pope Innocent III, Abe Lincoln or Charles de Gaulle rabbiting on about leadership?

But back to the Bill. It describes “stewardship” by saying that the public service “builds its capability” by “understanding the long-term impacts of what it does.” That is self-evidently not true.

The Public Service Commissioner, Dr de Brouwer, muddies the waters by saying that “..the idea of stewardship…goes to the sense that a public servant is responsible for their workplace for what they do and that goes to integrity and behaviour.” Duh! Dr Rachel Bacon from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet unhelpfully adds that a communications officer ensuring “information is accessible on line so that diverse groups can access and interact with that information” is a good example of “stewardship”. Duh, again. Sadly, de Brouwer and Bacon’s elucidations, roughly speaking, do not in any way relate to the definition of “stewardship” in the Bill.

The point is that “stewardship” is about making sure the public service is adequately resourced and has the structures and procedures to do the best it can. This is the responsibility of Ministers and senior officials. For these people to propose “stewardship” as a value in the Public Service Act is yet another example of them fecklessly sloughing off their responsibilities to junior staff who they then callously put in line for disciplinary action for things over which they’re essentially powerless. Needless to say none of this stupidity was recommended by the Thodey Review.

Officials boasting about the Amendment Bill say that some 1500 people mostly public servants responded to a request for comments on it. The telling point is that some 169000 officials said nothing. The Bill has garnered virtually no coverage in the mainstream media. The Institute of Public Administration reprehensibly hasn’t bothered to organise a single event to discuss it as it’s too preoccupied lining up functions at which senior officials can indulge in orgies of cloying mutual praise.

The Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee that reviewed the Bill, attracted only a half a dozen submissions. Of the hundred or so public service agencies, three lodged submissions and one of those was a joint one. With some notable qualifications from Senator Barbara Pocock, the Committee waved the Bill through.

The lack of interest in it is consistent with its inconsequentiality.

Official documentation says the Bill is “the first instalment in a larger program” and that it “will lay the foundation for further reforms”. Dr de Brouwer excuses the languid pace by saying that it’s better “to do things incrementally on a no-regrets basis”, whatever that means. But just about everything about this Bill is to be regretted. It does next to nothing to address the public service’s serious ills about forthright and honest policy advising, nothing to give the Minister legal powers in her campaign to correct the onslaughts of consultants and, even worse, contractors, nothing to bolster merit, nothing about better service standards, nothing about better protection of whistleblowers, nothing about the proper regulation of post separation employment of officials, nothing about virtually anything that would help address the present discontents. “Lay the foundation”? The foundation in this Bill is made of fairy floss and if the Government continues incrementally at the current rate change it will take decades for things to be put right, well after the foundation has melted.

On public service reform the government speaks big and acts small. At least when as a result things continue to go wrong, those responsible will self-identify and be easy to round up.

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