H.K. COLEBATCH. What’s wrong with the APS?

Apr 18, 2019

The Thodey review has stimulated a wide variety of diagnoses of what’s wrong with the APS, but one has been missed.  Could it be that its problem is hubris?

The Thodey review of the APS might well become one of the most irrelevant contributions to Australian government – the Prime Minister who commissioned it having been shafted by his colleagues, and the one who replaced him having been removed by the electorate – and it seems to be having difficulty deciding on its own diagnosis, though it has assembled many of the usual suspects, and as Waterford said ‘scarcely a management cliché [has been left] unused’.  But it has sparked some interesting commentaries on what is wrong with the APS.  Jack Waterford (https://johnmenadue.com/jack-waterford-can-thodey-or-shorten-stop-bleeding-in-the-public-service-the-sydney-morning-herald/

) sees the problem as being mainly about ethics, Terry Moran


as it being mainly about Imagination, a team from ANZSOG https://www.apsreview.gov.au/priorities/culture

) see it as being about leadership and cultural change, and the Select Committee on Intergenerational Welfare Dependence (https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/reportrep/024242/toc_pdf/LivingontheEdge.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

sees it in terms of organisational factors: funding, coordination, community links and strategic leadership.

The Thodey review emerged from the Canberra bubble and shares many of the assumptions found there: that governing is a process of systematic official problem-solving.  It done by government, it consists of political leaders identifying problems and choosing goals, and top officials crafting ways to achieve these goals by delivering services, with progress being monitored and programs evaluated as they progress.  It is assumed that the APS is the leading actor in this process, and that reform would aim to sharpen its capacity to be the instrument for achieving official goals.

This is a ‘good story’ about governing: it explains the ‘public face’ of government, the things that we can see, with the assumptions we make about legitimate authority and instrumental action: governing happens when governments pursue the goals they see as being in our collective interest.  But is it a good explanation?  Let’s take two stories about major policy issues in Australia: Closing the Gap, and smoking reduction.

Closing the Gap seems to fit the story well.  The political leaders have enunciated a clear goal, with specific and measurable targets, and commited resources, and this has been reinforced by the utterances of the top bureaucrats.  This is seen as a major policy reform, one that will change the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the rest of us.  Progress on the achievement of program goals has been carefully measured, and the results announced by the Prime Minister. There could hardly be a better illustration of policy development by the book.  And yet the goal is as far from achievement as ever.  There has been progress on some measures, but regress on others, and there has certainly been no transformation of the relationship between Aboriginal Australian and others.

The story of smoking reduction is rather different. There has certainly been a radical policy change, from the National Tobacco Plan on 1956 (which bribed the multinational cigarette manufacturers to use Australian rather than imported leaf) to the National Tobacco Strategy of 1997 ((which was about reducing smoking and smoking-related disease).  But there was no clear policy decision from the Australian government.  In 1957 the National Health and Medical Research Council asked the federal government to fund a smoking reduction campaign, and the government took no action: not our problem.

There followed forty years of skirmishing, with the initiative coming from community groups (often medico-led) and state governments, complemented by actions from local councils, insurance companies, landlords, workplaces and social settings.  Action was fragmented and opportunist.  For instance, mobilising the powerful policy norm of child protection, activists secured a prohibition on TV advertising of cigarettes during the hours that children were likely to be watching; they then pointed out that football grounds had cigarette advertisements on the perimeter fences, so televising matches on Saturday afternoons would expose children to these advertisements and therefore be illegal, and rather than lose the income from televising matches, the advertisements were removed from the fences.  Vigorous action was possible in Victoria because the father of the Minister for Health had recently died from emphysema and the Shadow Minister shared the concern to reduced smoking for health reasons.  But at the Federal level, a Senate committee report proposing a comprehensive strategy was blocked by the Prime Minister’s opposition to a ‘nanny state’ and the Minister for Industry, protecting his clientele.  Consequently, the federal Minister for Health (who was, as it happened, a medico) did not put the National Tobacco Strategy to the federal cabinet, but when it was agreed to by the federal and all the state ministers of health, it became the national strategy.

So the policy development took place despite, not because of, the APS and its political superiors.  But it seems to have been successful: smoking among adult males has declined from 72% in 1946 to 16% now, and the female rate, which started to rise in the 1970s, is now declining at the same rate as the males – though as Simon Chapman has pointed out (https://www.bmj.com/content/307/6901/429

) we cannot say how much any of the policy measures taken contributed to this reduction (if any: the reduction in smoking started before the policy measures and has continued at roughly the same trajectory since then).

This suggests that it is easy to overstate the significance of official action in achieving social change.  The decline in smoking had already begun when the issue made its first appearance on official agendas, and the campaign drew on many sources of governing: not just official rule-making and medical knowledge, but risk management and norms of interpersonal responsibility in workplaces, public spaces and the home.  The different cues for action reinforced one another: the increasing certainty of medical knowledge prompted insurance companies to treat smoking as a risk factor, and both contributed to the delegitimisation of smoking, which in turn facilitated the introduction of more rigorous controls and higher taxation. In this perspective, what looks ad hoc and unplanned can be seen as a continuing, cumulative, collective managing of the problematic.  The governing of smoking was done by the Australian community; official action contributed, but there was no key, authoritative voice.

The problem for the APS is its inherent belief that there is (or should be) such a voice, and that it should be the APS which expresses it.  As is brought very clearly in the research report prepared for the review by Professor Cheryl Saunders and team (https://www.apsreview.gov.au/resources/working-better-other-jurisdictions

), which found that cross-jurisdictional issues feed on ‘a culture in which Commonwealth officials assume that they and their Ministers can control cross-jurisdictional interaction’.  Few of the senior players in the APS have ever worked in other jurisdictions (or, indeed, outside Canberra).  They assume that the Canberra perspective should prevail, and that the financial relationship will ensure that it does.  They tend to lack sectoral or subject-matter expertise in the issues they are dealing with, and also the practical skills of inter-jurisdictional negotiation (‘tradecraft’), and these deficiencies are magnified by the lack of individual and organizational stability, which minimizes the possibility of learning from experience.

So the APS is accustomed to assuming that it should be in the driving seat, and if necessary, reconstructs the story so that these expectations appear to be fulfilled.  The Australian Public Service Commission claims:

‘A good example of a successful, comprehensive behavioural change strategy is Australia’s approach to tobacco control.  There is a consensus in the Australian and international literature that a long-term and comprehensive approach to tobacco control is the most effective way of influencing the behaviour of smokers and potential smokers.  Ad hoc, piecemeal action can have some impact but it is significantly more limited than a carefully planned, comprehensive, long-term approach encompassing education and information. …

The components of the comprehensive approach are set out in the Australian National Tobacco Strategy 2004-2009.  The strategy was developed by the Australian Government in consultation with all state and territory governments and a range of NGOs.’


– which, as we have seen, is a total myth, rewriting the actual experience of policy, and illustrating only the APS capacity for self-delusion.

Nor is there much indication that the Thodey review will be any different.  Its only allusion to the failure of Closing the Gap is a pale thought that ‘Now is the time for the APS to reconceptualise how it works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.’ (https://www.apsreview.gov.au/priorities

I.e. ‘it might be appropriate for the APS to decide to be nicer to the lower orders’.  And the research paper commissioned from ANZSOG (https://www.apsreview.gov.au/resources/delivering-local-solutions) sees a ‘world-class APS delivering local solutions’.  This will be accomplished by designating the area managers of the federal department (who are responsible for identifying ‘new APS local solutions initiatives’) as ‘Community Advocates’ (and giving them a pay rise).  We will work with other jurisdictions, but we will be in the driver’s seat.

Perhaps it’s just as well that no one will take much notice of the review.

HK Colebatch is a political scientist who established the graduate program in social science and policy at UNSW.

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