The Pezzullo affair: Time to clarify APS values and responsibilities

Oct 16, 2023
Core values diagram with magnifying glass and conceptual words on blackboard.

Glyn Davis may have been ‘shocked’ by the Pezzullo revelations but, as several other observers have noted, many other people inside and outside the public service were not really surprised.

Pezzullo has always been a divisive character with a management style that takes no prisoners. His has never been the collaborative leadership approach long espoused by APSC and ANZSOG leadership training courses, and there has been little sign of consistency with the ‘cooperation’ requirements of agency heads in the Public Service and PGPA Acts.

He has also made no secret of his disdain for the FOI Act. That his views represent more general disregard for democratic accountability including freedom of the press is deeply concerning but again not that surprising to many close observers.

The APS Commissioner has delegated to former Commissioner Lynelle Briggs his power to determine whether Pezzullo has breached the APS Code of Conduct. My chief concern is whether Pezzullo’s behaviour represents a more systemic problem of APS leaders failing to meet their responsibilities. In Pezzullo’s case, the failures would seem to be ones of commission – doing things which impartial and apolitical public servants should not do; in multiple other cases, the failures have been of omission – not doing what they should. Think Robodebt, ‘sports rorts’, multi-ministries advice, community health grants, responses to Senator Patrick’s FOI requests for ‘National Cabinet’ papers. Think also about repeated criticisms of the failure to keep proper records.

Common to all these (and many other cases over the last decade or more) is excessive responsiveness to the Government and failure to pay sufficient attention to the obligation also to serve the Parliament and the Australian public. Of course the public service must be loyal to the elected government, and the balance between responsiveness and the degree of independence of the APS is a perennial challenge under the Westminster system. But the pendulum has swung way too far over the last thirty years and as a series of reports have recommended, we need a significant correction to get the balance right.

Surely the Pezzullo affair on top of the Robodebt fiasco will lead to serious reform now.

Maybe now the work of the Secretaries Board’s Integrity Task force and work on responding to the Robodebt Royal Commission will lead to a new and much more substantial PS Act Amendment Bill. That should include major changes to secretaries’ appointment and tenure arrangements and strengthening the role of the APS Commissioner.

The Auditor-General’s foreword to his latest annual report was a breath of fresh air. His recent IPAA Secretaries Series address expanded on his concerns. He called for stronger regulatory oversight by the policy owners of principles-based frameworks in areas such as resource management, procurement, grants administration, cyber security, record-keeping, freedom of information, and ethical conduct.

There appears, he said, to be relatively high risk-tolerance for non-compliance so long as ‘results’ are achieved, rather than seeing compliance as a hallmark of integrity and essential to the craft of public administration. He emphasised how compliance is related to the requirement to serve the Parliament.

My concern is not just about the need for stronger oversight of principles-based legislation, but also about the need for clarification of the principles themselves, particularly the APS Values in the PS Act. I have questioned (without success) the proposed addition of ‘stewardship’ to the APS Values, arguing this is not a value but a responsibility of senior management. A more fundamental review of the APS Values, which now might finally attract attention, would ensure they reflect the unique responsibilities of the APS as an institution ‘consistent with the system of representative and responsible government mandated by the Constitution’ (High Court judgment in 2019 Banerji case).

The changes to the APS Values in 2013 to make them ‘more memorable’ were at the expense of much of their substance. A central concern I have had was the omission of ‘merit’, the core value of a professional civil service advocated by the 1954 Northcote-Trevelyan Report. But the 2013 revised wording has also contributed to confusion over APS responsibilities towards the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public.

The value, ‘commitment to service’, for example, refers to service to ministers as well as to the public. The Robodebt Royal Commission called for ‘a fresh focus on customer service’. I suggest we consider a New Zealand style reference to the ‘spirit of service’ to the Australian public. Commitment to serve ministers should be in a separate value about the democratic responsibility of the APS.

Similarly, ‘impartiality’ as currently defined refers mainly to being apolitical in serving the Government, but equally important is being impartial in administration affecting the public. The latter needs a separate reference, relevant to the whole panoply of administrative law.

A useful framework for articulating the APS Values, which would also facilitate clarification of the different values for the Parliamentary Service, ministerial staff and other public sector workers, would be to group them under the different key relationships the APS has with the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public, and in the workplace.

In terms of its relationship with the Government and the Parliament, the core APS values are:

  • Democratic responsiveness, being responsive to the elected government;
  • Non-partisanship, being apolitical, not participating directly in politics;
  • Accountability, through the system of ministerial responsibility to the Parliament.

In terms of its relationship with the Australian public, the core APS values are:

  • Impartiality, being disinterested in exercising authority;
  • Spirit of service, being committed to serving the Australian public and the public interest.

In terms of workplace relations, the core value is:

  • Merit in all employment decisions.

The merit value would then lie behind the more extensive set of Employment Principles in the Act.

A further core APS value relevant to all its relationships is:

  • High ethical standards, given taxpayer funding and the exercise of public power.

There is a lot more that needs to be done to repair the damage that Pezzullo and Campbell and some other recent APS leaders have done to the APS. But clarifying responsibilities and values might be part of the start.

 

First published in THE MANDARIN October 6, 2023

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