GREG BAILEY. Are Public Servants too elitist? What should their role be?

Jul 4, 2018

A recent article published on The Conversation “found attitudes of elitism among public servants, which effectively led them to resist public input…” and that “A clear democratic conduit between citizen and policymaker is largely absent.” But is this the best way to understand the present status of the Public service and public servants’ attitudes?

Though no doubt well researched ( and using an extensive range of data, I wonder whether focusing on the failure of public servants to act as a “democratic conduit” is appropriate to the Public Service and public servants. Merely by its name, the Public Service is an institution designed/obliged to serve the public. This literal meaning is necessarily vague, but perhaps can be refined if we add that it serves the public by giving advice to the elected representatives of the public, the politicians, and facilitates the implementation of policy. In terms of policy formation, this advice would ideally be based on careful research, subject to close analysis in consideration of the range of options for its implementation and practicability thereof. Then it would given to the minister and or the relevant parliamentary select committee, then cabinet, which would draw conclusions from it that might be sent back to a particular department to be drafted for specific legislation. Of course, this is an idealized picture and there exist other formal sources of information such as the Parliamentary Research Library to which sitting members have access for research they want to be undertaken.

Doubting that this idealized situation ever existed in practice, the whole picture has become severely muddied over the last three decades. This should be no surprise given the reshaping of bureaucracies in the first world over this period and the redefinition of the function of government in the face of the ideological and pragmatic elevation of the private sector. Neoliberal theory sees elected government performing a mere steering role for the market, which should always be allowed to expand its wings and fly. In practice this is a misnomer as many governments have shown themselves, even if surreptitiously-though increasingly less so, to bolster and sustain the oligopolies into which the large corporations have evolved. One cannot say the public service stands between the public and the politicians. It does not. Rather it serves the public through serving the politicians, who in turn are elected to serve the public.

The porous space between the public and politicians has been appropriated by the large lobbying companies, the various unions and employers’ federations, the fourth estate and, especially, the large consultancy firms. These do not act as a surrogate public service. Rather they shape what they want the elected representatives to hear, or what the elected representatives desire to hear, and if this becomes legislated policy then the public servants are required to administer it.

Where there might be serious problems is in the now well-documented practice of senior public servants transferring employment from the finance departments to the large consultancy firms, and of politicians-state and federal–moving post-retirement to the large consultancy firms and industry organizations/lobbying groups. The former have usually worked in senior positions in the public service and know how ministers should be approached from a lobbying perspective. The latter still retain direct ministerial contacts through friendships, but equally have an entrée into the senior levels of the public service, and especially also into the group of party apparatchiks who perform such an effective filtering role between the lobbyists, the public and the minister. In this sense the idea of public service has been corrupted because as an institution it can perhaps be seen to have gone beyond its role of providing “objective and frank” advice with no desire for a reward in sight, instead translating the giving of advice into a pecuniary form.

Another larger question is the extent to which the public servant is being defined in terms of managerial roles emphasizing key performance indicators and measurement. All of the privatized energy companies have bureaucracies run along public service lines, and the public service itself is run on the basis of ongoing efficiency gains, as if the ridiculous chimaera of “constant improvement” governs everything. To some extent, with their layers of middle management, the large privatized former public sector corporations have become surrogate public services, or a public service many conservative politicians would like to see, especially when limited tenure of employment becomes the norm.

That the public service may convey the expression of a body manifesting an elite attitude towards the public–its customers in neoliberal language–does not militate against its true role. It is not there to function as a conduit to the politicians, with the exception of people working on the frontline in Centre Link, the post office and or law courts, who will receive direct responses from the general public about the value or otherwise of the service provided. Nor need this attitude necessarily be seen as a blight on the democratic polity. In truth, public servants will interact with other members of the public in their daily lives and will also experience the same lifestyle choices as them.

In conclusion, one must ask why the public service should interact–apart from in an administrative and service capacity–with the members of the public as a kind of democratic sponge? For this, the public have available the fourth estate, the local offices of their elected members, trade unions and multifarious other pressure groups. As such, it might be argued the public should stand back from the public service by which it is serviced and allow the elected representatives to be their own first line of contact.

Dr. Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University

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