ANDREW PODGER. COVID-19 crisis shows a strong public service is vital

Apr 7, 2020

The convid-19 epidemic has shown how much Australia relies on an effective public service, free from politics. This, however, is in spite of the over-politicisation and under-resourcing of the service over recent years.

The COVID 19 crisis provides the opportunity to reconsider risk management in this age of inter-connectedness, inter-dependence and just-in-time processes. But I doubt we will see a fundamental move away from our global competitive market, or indeed from governments’ reliance on market-type mechanisms to deliver efficient and effective public services, despite claims of the end of ‘neo-liberalism’. We heard such claims after the GFC but, while there was a much-needed rediscovery of the importance of financial regulation, there was little evidence of reversal of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

Amongst the things whose importance is so obvious in this crisis is a well-functioning and responsible government which has the trust of the public.

For too long, the push has been for hyper-partisan politics and the constant political campaign, where the professionalism of our political processes has diluted key aspects of ‘responsible government’: the rule of law, the impartiality of administration, the merit-base and non-partisanship of the public service, the scrutiny role of the parliament. The almost sole emphasis of politics seems to have been on winning, where the winner takes all, and the very fact of electoral success justifies whatever action the executive takes.

The downsides of this trend have been apparent for a decade or more, but with little impact on the body politic.

One is the impact on the public service. A loss of capability was identified in the 2010 Moran Report and confirmed in the series of capability reviews subsequently coordinated by the APS Commission. Little attention was given to this by the Rudd and Gillard governments (extra resources promised by Gillard were later withdrawn), and the Abbott Government made clear its total lack of interest in APS capability and its determination to assert firm political control. Little changed under Turnbull. Unsurprisingly, the Thodey Report last year confirmed the continuing loss of capability.

While the Morrison government has paid lip service to Thodey’s recommendations to reinvest in capability, agreeing to a new round of capability reviews and measures to improve professional skills and to explore opportunities for investment in an enhanced digital capacity,  there is no sign of willingness to address the root causes of the loss of capability. These go back not just to resourcing issues but also to the failure of successive governments to recognise that the public service serves the parliament and the public as well as the government (as set out in the Public Service Act), and to the insistence on close political control including via ministerial staff without recognising the degree of independence vital to the institution that is the public service.

The dismissal of another five secretaries, several of whom demonstrated the very qualities the APS so desperately needs, revealed contempt on an Abbott scale for anyone who does not focus exclusively on serving the interests of their current ministers. Morrison’s undervaluing of the policy advising role of the APS last year also reveals his preference for policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. (Paul Tilley’s recent and damning anecdote about the then Treasurer’s reliance on political advisers rather than Treasury for tax policy advice almost certainly relates to Morrison’s time as Treasurer).

The downsides of recent political behaviour go beyond the loss of standing and capability of the APS: they include serious questions about the legality and impartiality of administration, and about respect for the role of the parliament. The so-called ‘sports rorts’ affair reveals a continuing belief amongst ministers that being elected is sufficient to decide on the allocation of taxpayer funds, and is superior to allowing decisions by ‘unaccountable bureaucrats’. It reveals an astonishing disregard for the checks and balances involved in responsible government, including the importance of impartiality and compliance with the law. The ‘robo-debt’ case also reveals an alarming willingness to overlook legal and ethical requirements for fairness and due process.

That senior public servants seem to have gone along with the political directions involved notwithstanding doubts about legality confirms the shift in recent years towards ‘promiscuous partisanship’, a willingness to cross-the-line regarding public service values and ethics as if such willingness to do so for a different government justifies the behaviour.

Suddenly, however, when it comes to this crisis, ‘responsible government’ principles have become important and are readily accepted by government leaders, both national and state. Public service expert advice, whether from Treasury or Health, is not only essential but must be seen to be influential for public confidence and trust. Partisanship is suddenly inappropriate (though the Opposition and minor parties have been given only limited opportunity to contribute). Impartiality and fairness in administration is now essential for social solidarity, and care is being given to ensure measures have legal authority. Also, there is recognition of the importance of the capacity of the public service itself to deliver – through Services Australia or the Tax Office or other agencies – without excessive reliance on contractors and consultants

Not everything is going right, however. The suspension of parliament is continuing the recent practice of excessive executive power with insufficient scrutiny. It is not clear to me why the opportunity has not been given to see if the parliament might exercise its scrutiny role in ensuring accountability in a less partisan way than in the past.

Also, the reliance on public service expertise seems to be revealing again a loss of capability compared to ten or more years ago. Arguably, Treasury is showing under Steven Kennedy’s leadership that it has halted the decline, and that it is refreshingly willing to engage with external expertise in economic management. Health, however, seems to be struggling more with its loss of expertise, and a culture that has not in recent years encouraged engagement with outside experts. I suspect the same may be true of some State health departments.

The reluctance until this week to share the modelling of COVID 19 – the spread of infections under different assumptions, the impact of ‘flattening the curve’ on infection rates, hospitalisations and final death rates – and to engage with public health and epidemiological experts in universities and elsewhere, seems likely to relate more to reduced inside expertise and an inward culture than to a considered communications strategy aimed to avoid misinformation and panic. There is also no transparency about how such health modelling is being linked to economic modelling, as different health strategies affect the degree and length of economic slowdown.

So what lessons should we and the government draw from the crisis, about what is really important in future? The capability of the public service should be right up there. As should it having sufficient independence based on its core values of impartiality, non-partisanship and the merit principle. These go to the very recommendations by Thodey that the Morrison Government rejected: strengthening the role of the APS Commission under the PS Act, clarifying the Commissioner’s role vis-a=vis that of the PM&C Secretary (preferably, in my view, making the Commissioner the professional head of the APS) and subjecting his/her appointment to endorsement by the parliament, and clarifying the role and accountability of ministerial staff.

With others, I have been pressing for a parliamentary inquiry to explore the Thodey recommendations that were not agreed by the government, as I believe such a major report of the APS should not be left to the government alone. With the suspension of the parliament that now looks less likely, but perhaps a reflection of how the APS operated in this crisis might provoke re-examination later in the year of the issues raised through the Thodey exercise.

Andrew Podger is Honorary Professor of Public Policy at ANU, and a former Public Service Commissioner and Secretary of the Health Department

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