As if the Public Service did not have enough pressure placed on it – over the past three decades it has been politicized, it has been continually downsized and its professionalism has been called into question by an homogenous collection of party hacks, consultants and lobbyists, perhaps picking up on a long-standing public disdain for the efficiency of public servants. If this is not enough, it is now under attack from John Lloyd, Commissioner, Australian Public Service Commission, and at times an IPA member.
Lloyd has had his fifteen minutes of fame in the press over the past week. This media fame relates to questions put to him by Senate committee members about whether he should answer questions that might impact on his capacity to serve the Public Service in an impartial manner. It reaches back to October 2017 when it was suggested in the press and Senate hearings that he had emailed information about CPS working conditions and superannuation awards to members of the IPA.
I suppose the relevant question to ask is whether a public service, which has seemingly been under siege for so long, should be subjected to the governing opinion of someone associated with a group so ideologically opposed to the Public Service as an advice-giving institution, if not to public service as such. Equally, his positioning as head of this important board of commissioners may be a further sign of how influential this government has been in implementing the IPA’s agenda. One might object that the IPA is just another right wing think tank and lobbying group, and as such in a democracy it should be able to exercise its lobbying right just as much as anybody else. Nor is it simply an argument that the IPA has been more successful in influencing the LNP – by having several of its members in parliamentary positions, and prominent time spots on ABC radio– than almost any other pressure group. Arguably the government has been carrying out an IPA agenda since Tony Abbott became PM in 2014, an agenda possibly heightened by the present PM.
Perhaps what the IPA, through Lloyd, is asking is whether we want a public service at all? That is one possible reading of what Lloyd is saying, and the IPA in its various submissions about the public service. Lloyd’s vision is partially one where public service jobs are divided up into projects, which projects are assigned to teams, to which teams individuals join, which teams are then disaggregated when the job has been completed. In his words: “The team membership will be a mix of skills set by the nature of the project. The membership will often change as the project develops. The team will be disbanded at project conclusion.” But not even the private sector works in this particular manner, because if it did there would be no long-term continuity of knowledge at all, or acquired skills.
Further, behind his views on teamwork – never a permanent team but one consisting of individuals brought together on the basis of the nature of the project – is that sense of individualism so beloved by those on the ideological right. Team members are individuals who will negotiate their remuneration with a benevolent management, and everybody will come out winners. Apart from being extremely naïve, this belief is empirically false, as the diminution in Australian working conditions over the last twenty years has shown, especially in the face of a dramatically declining union membership.
But perhaps more problematic is that concealed behind this belief – and recently outed by the Community and Public Sector Union Submission of February 2018 – is the realization that consultants and contractors will take up the “slack” of a dwindling workforce of tenured public servants. A number of reports have revealed the dramatically increased expenditure on consultants and contractors over the past five years, and this was already coming off a relatively large base. However, given that both these categories are self-employed and fit the criterion of working in teams on specific projects, this fits perfectly with the kind of vision so beloved of Lloyd and the IPA. But it is one which will likely end up being much more expensive than retaining a solid cohort of “independent” public servants. A further attraction for the IPA is that the large consultancy firms, in particular, share their ideological biases.
One of the advantages of having tenure of appointment in any position is that it enables the building up and retention of a body of knowledge and techniques of work that endure beyond the short time span of a particular project. Build up of historical knowledge over a lengthy period is threatened by the short-termism associated with the kind of teamwork Lloyd suggests, apart from the level of insecurity it must generate. We are seemingly a long way from a semi-independent public service, an institution we have had sometimes during the past one hundred years, but we will never return to this if the IPA and its representatives continue to determine the agenda.
The idea of public servants providing impartial advice to politicians and ministers is now–hopefully not always–a chimera. Arguably, of course, it is they who should provide their political masters with impartial advice, advice that should not be diluted by the pragmatic leanings of political advisers or rejected by the pragmatic posturing of consultants.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.