Getting public service on an even keel key to better government

May 3, 2023
Australia Parliament House - illustration in grey and white. Image: iStock / Viji

It may not be widely appreciated that door knocking religious proselytisers can be kept at bay by insisting they partake in discussions on public administration in exchange for whatever divine light is being diffused. It’s not that religion and public administration don’t mix; it’s that public administration is so tedious for all but those triple vaccinated against boredom.

The aversion is especially acute in politicians as public administration has none of the excitement of dishing out tax cuts to the well-off, keeping a sharp eye out for welfare rorters, keeping the unemployed gasping for breath or splurging hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear submarines that might, or might not, turn up in 30-40 years to serve strategic interests then unlikely to exist.

That’s a shame because the quality of government and quality of the public service are correlated. It’s not the full picture but it’s an important part of it. Thus, through the history of the Commonwealth citizens have paid a price for governments neglecting the public service. Although things became notably untidy during the Morrison era, other governments over the last 30 years can share the shame.

So the interest the federal government and its Public Service Minister, Senator Gallagher, are showing in getting the administration into better shape is comforting. Its new Administrative Arrangements Order was an improvement on the one it displaced although it baulked at dismantling the ill-conceived and hapless Home Affairs portfolio. Arbitrary controls on the numbers of staff have been abandoned and the use of contractors and labour hire to perform public service jobs has been wound back. Funding is to be provided for the evaluation of government programs. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, debased by partisan appointments to it, is to be replaced and an inquiry is soon due to report on better procedures for the appointment of statutory office holders. A start has been made on the long and difficult task of evening up remuneration across the public service. Minister Gallagher has made several speeches setting out the Government’s ambitions and a head of department level position has been created to deal with public service reform.

Yet the struggle for improvement has been uneven.

Instead of pressing for greater efficiencies in rational ways, the Government has chosen the lazy path and maintained an arbitrary efficiency dividend on all agencies without regard to their individual circumstances despite abundant evidence of the damage this dividend has done.

The Secretaries Board (a body composed of all departmental secretaries plus a few others) has made a couple of unhelpful interventions. Last September it brought forth a “Charter of Leadership Behaviours” riddled with demoralising platitudes (“practice new ways of deploying yourself”, “grow others”, “understand people”, blah, blah and blah). More seriously at a time of special sensitivity about legalities, the “Charter” failed fairly to represent the code of conduct in the Public Service Act.

More recently the Board published a four page document titled “All Roles Flexible” telling staff, possibly to their bemusement, that “We support our people to be agile, innovative and create solutions to overcome barriers.” Such banality aside, the Board’s promotion of “flexible workplaces” doesn’t seem to be based on any evaluation of the working from home forced by COVID nor does it contain significant guidance on practical matters like occupational health and safety, injury compensation, performance management and the security of documents and equipment.

The principal achievement of the Secretaries Board appears to be the spawning of sub-committees, the latest one enigmatically designated as the “APS Deliberative Committee”. An office of circumlocution might not be far away.

Meanwhile the Secretary for Public Servicer Reform is being supported by an “APS Reform Office” in the Prime Minister’s Department headed by a Deputy Secretary no less. While the Office seems to have been beavering away on all sorts of things, its reporting on the Department’s website looks as if it has been too taken up matters of second and third rate importance.

For example, the Office’s list of proposed changes to the Public Service Act is:

  • Including “stewardship” in the Act’s “values” – that is unwise as stewardship is a function not a value and it would make the vast mass of staff responsible for something over which they have little or no control.
  • Putting “a clear and inspiring purpose statement” in the Act – while that would add little to what is already there, staff can do without such condescension as they know all too well what they are supposed to do and why.
  • Extending the Public Service Act values to agencies not covered by that Act – fine, but not a big deal.
  • And legislating for “long term insight briefings”, the publication of staff census results and capability reviews – why legislation is needed for these is neither evident nor explained.

More disappointingly, the proposed changes to the Public Service Act don’t encompass critical needs, some of which were recommended by the previous Government’s Thodey Review, like:

  • Better arrangements for the appointment and tenure of departmental secretaries, a matter brought into stark relief by the Robodebt Royal Commission.
  • Amending the roles and powers of the Public Service Commission and the Secretaries Board to improve the central management of the public service.
  • Refining recruitment laws to make it clear that, consistent with the federal Constitution, that jobs in the public service should be filled by public servants not via contractors and labour hire where proper merit tests cannot be applied and where the lawful right of citizens to have reasonable opportunities to apply for public service employment is denied.
  • Establishing a legal requirement for the regular evaluation of government programs.

It might be possible to get things in more convincing shape if those now handling public service reform were to consult more effectively. The current habit of putting a post on a website saying ”Howdy fellas – got any ideas about PS Reform?” is woefully inadequate. Proper consultation should be based on a comprehensive discussion paper setting out specific proposals and how they cohere. And the biasing of consultation in favour of public servants should be modified to better include those with more critical interests, especially people reliant on government services.

Getting the public service on a more even keel is key to better government. It requires a determination to sift the evidence of historical experience, a clear definition of objectives and problems and a strong focus on what is critically important. All the attention in the world to second order concerns like “long term insight briefings” will likely waste away if the fundamentals are not right.

It’s also to be hoped efforts to make solid administrative improvements can duck around the pusillanimity the Prime Minister has shown in too many areas of policy. But there are no votes at risk in the public administration paddock, so his government should go the guts while the going is good.

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