In recent years the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) has in the Christian Advent season delivered an “annual address to the Australian Public Service.”
This is tricky territory for the Secretary needs to be careful to match thanks and praise with frank recognition of the not so good while avoiding the defence or advocacy of matters of partisan political controversy.
It’s not surprising therefore that these addresses have only half succeeded, or put another way, they have half failed. This year’s from the relatively new head of PM&C, Dr Glyn Davis, fits within the form of its predecessors, its satisfactions being well balanced with its disappointments.
True to his university heritage, Davis begins with a mini tutorial drawing on the views of Michael Oakeshott, Plato and Max Weber in which he conjures a metaphor of the public service as “a ship afloat [on] a boundless sea”. On this craft, Davis says public servants have a solemn responsibility for “stewardship”. That’s a good point although, as he observes, this responsibility is shared “with elected officials” and, although he doesn’t say it, elected officials are the head stewards who are mainly responsible for keeping the ship afloat.
While the tutorial could be helpful for public servants who may have heard of Oakeshott, Plato and Weber but not dipped deeply into their writings, Davis overplays his hand, claiming that “public service without purpose is bureaucracy”. No it’s not. Bureaucracy, as Weber was at pains to explain, is a formalisation of organisation so as to achieve efficiently explicit purposes.
Davis considers three examples of “stewardship in action” – the public role in assisting with changes in government, “the official response to the death of the Queen” and “the monumental and ongoing policy challenge of COVID-19.”
The transition to the new government was handled, he says, with “dexterity and grace” in an “orderly and rapid transfer of power” assuring “the Australian public that the ship of state can embrace a new course, be configured anew even as it sails.”
For the Queen’s death “the Australian Public Service has planned for this eventuality for around a decade, in the form of Operation London Bridge” Davis reports, adding that a colleague said that the Operation was “a testament to the very best traditions of Public Service.”
It’s not clear why these two triumphs are singled out. Sure, fixing up the Administrative Arrangements Order and related tasks for a new government are important yet not out of the ordinary. It’s a well-oiled machine. And helping to salve the agonies of national grief at the death of the Queen and assisting the government convey the nation’s sympathy to her fractious family was natural enough although it seemed to many, even in non-republican circles, that the associated rituals edged too closely towards the extravagant.
More to the point, in singling out these two examples of “stewardship in action” for praise, Davis is congratulating himself and his Department as they were responsible for their coordination. Central office HQ is talking to itself and not the more critical and difficult work done elsewhere. Can we not hear it for thousands of staff in the Tax Office who each year bring in hundreds of billions of dollars to keep the ship of state afloat or those other thousands who are daily ensuring the less fortunate in the community get the assistance they need to keep their heads above water, to stretch the prevailing metaphor?
Still with reflections on the COVID pandemic, Davis brings in parts the public service outside the PM&C orbit. The pandemic, he says “tested stewardship more significantly than any other challenge in our working lives.” It was a “mammoth collaborative effort” and “no better example of all hands on deck.” Many of Davis’s compliments are well earned but apart from a raised eyebrow about the “CovidSafe app”, he doesn’t much muse on what was not done well from the problems with vaccine distribution to PM&C’s thrashing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for failing to disclose innocent documents that had been before the National Cabinet. These are far from testaments “to the very best of Public Service traditions.”
Davis refers to the privately commissioned review of the COVID response led by Dr Peter Shergold saying that this “will help shape a longer-term pandemic strategy.” Maybe, but this report is notably limited and it is no substitute for a proper government initiated independent review. If it’s good enough to have a Royal Commission on the Robodebt, which Davis doesn’t mention even as it rips at the public service’s heart, surely a similar exercise on what he calls the greatest “challenge in our working lives” which has killed 17000, caused untold disruption and where government responses often fell short is warranted – getting the ship ready for the next wave, as it were.
But stewardship will drift into complacency if it rests mainly on the recollection of past glories. It must essentially be about improving policies, procedures and structures for the future. Although the Public Service Minister, Katy Gallagher, has set out an expansive outline of the Government’s ambitions for public service reform, Dr Davis doesn’t mention these in his address. Nor does he offer, as nominal head of the public service, any suggestions about what he thinks might be done at an official level to support Gallagher’s program.
To Davis’s credit, his Department’s website now contains information on the workings of the Secretaries Board, a standing inter-departmental committee of 20 or so people. Unfortunately the website doesn’t show a comprehensively satisfying program of work in support of Gallagher’s plans. Moreover, Dr Gordon de Brouwer, who has been appointed as “Secretary of Public Service Reform” (a designation inconsistent with the definition of “Secretary” in the Public Service Act) has also been engaged on the review of the Reserve Bank – that is to say, he is now part-time on his public service gig. The impression is that APS reform is losing its sparkle and that the good ship of stewardship may be drifting towards the doldrums with much still to be done to make it more seaworthy.
Perhaps the New Year will bring fresh energy to Gallagher’s program. It’s to be hoped so because the achievement of the Government’s broader goals will be restricted if the public service is not in its best condition. If it is made to be so, Dr Davis may be able to lift his 2023 “annual address to the Australian Public Service” above the half success-half fail grade for his 2022 offering and so help to keep the ship of state above its Plimsoll line.