JACK WATERFORD. Can Thodey, or Shorten, stop bleeding in the public service? (Canberra Times online 30.3.2019)

Apr 1, 2019

It was hard to avoid the feeling this week that Terry Moran has a much better take on the problems of modern government and public administration than the review of the public service commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull last year.  And Pearls and Irritations is “ Australia’s best website focused on policy issues’ !

Moran, head of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s time, was giving an oration in honour of Jim “Rosy” Carlton, a leading dry of 40 years ago who was polite and engaging, with a respect for evidence not always evident among some of today’s economic ideologues. Perhaps that came from his background at McKinsey’s before he went into politics, first as a backroom man, and later as a minister in the Fraser government.

Moran’s speech came only about a week after publication of a report from the review of the public service led by CSIRO chairman David Thodey. No one quite knows what to make of it. It was, in effect, a set of broad ideas, outlined in not much more than chapter head form, put up for discussion with a deadline for a final report in the later part of this year. The review has its own website (www.apsreview.gov.au), which lays some stress on its being independent, even if its office is only two doors away from the office of its principal patron, Martin Parkinson, the current head of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Parkinson’s sacking as head of Treasury by Tony Abbott is frequently cited as an example of a want of respect for public service independence (Parkinson having been an object of suspicion by Abbott because he had served as head of the climate change department before going to Treasury). When Turnbull displaced Abbott, his calling on Parkinson to head Prime Minister and Cabinet was seen as an effort to put things right.

Turnbull came up with the idea of having a major public service review, on the scale of that conducted under Nugget Coombs in the 1970s. Parkinson seemed an early enthusiast, and certainly had a hand in the terms of reference, if not, perhaps in the selection of all of those on the panel. What tended to distinguish the panel, in a manner that might symbolise the style and the failures of the Turnbull government, was that most of its members were mates of Turnbull, and most had backgrounds in the top end of town.

But the physical proximity of offices might have ended up being for a different purpose. Perhaps Parkinson wanted it close to keep an eye on it. One somehow senses that it fell out of official favour, perhaps after the coup against Turnbull. It is noteworthy that most of the senior government agencies, including Prime Minister and Cabinet itself, did not even bother to prepare a submission.

The discussion paper was not received with any particular enthusiasm by Mathias Cormann, the Minister for Finance, who now seems to own public service matters.

There is scarcely a management cliché unused. Some broad recommendations – such as recreating one, not 30 separate public services, improving the autonomy of managers, and shifting back balances designed to reinforce independence – were plainly intended to be popular, as well as right.

But most proposals were so short of detail, and so thinly connected to any coherent central idea that it was hard to get a feel for what the panel really wanted. It said little about the existence or development of moral and intellectual leadership and character – a serious problem given the proportion of almost invisible managers, unknown to the public and mostly without policy backgrounds. Still less was it possible to see a plan to have the APS restored to some pre-eminence as a source of policy expertise and program experience, attracting and retaining the best and brightest of each generation.

Opinion about what to do with the report is mixed. There’s a good argument for ignoring it altogether. Most doubt the review’s final report will be used by the next government, Labor or Liberal, to make fundamental changes to the service. It was not Scott Morrison’s baby, and he has never manifested any enthusiasm for the review.

Or indeed for a public administration that did not have much time for his work, style, or attitude to accountability when he was a not terribly successful public servant before going into politics.

If the next government is Labor, as most expect, it might be expected to have some reforming zeal, particularly as it starts off. But it is doubtful this report would be the platform from which to launch. Labor spokesmen express polite, but only non-committal interest in the discussion paper.

Most are expecting that it will go the way of many similar inquiries, such as the Henry review of taxation in 2010. On the other hand, others think that some of its points must be addressed, positively or negatively according to their merits, lest a failure to put something on the record means that it passes by default.

Terry Moran’s speech in Melbourne was not an alternative Thodey review, even if it had some of the same problems in mind. Its text can to be found on Pearls and Irritations, (TERRY MORAN. The next long wave of reform — where will the ideas come from? Part 1 and  TERRY MORAN. The next long wave of reform — where will the ideas come from? Part 2 )– Australia’s best website focused on policy issues. (To complete the symmetry Menadue is himself a former head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, among other services to public life.)

Most doubt the review’s final report will be used by the next government, Labor or Liberal, to make fundamental changes to the service.

Moran commented on declining trust in our institutions. Seventy per cent of Australians do not think their elected members are serving their interests. Three quarters of the population think (rightly) that our politics is fixated on short-term gains rather than long-term challenges. General public support for the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s has dissipated.

“Yet we are in aggregate prosperous and something of a national economic success story. Why then are so many Australians grumpy?” Moran asked.

“Well, seen from a community perspective:

  •  the proceeds of economic activity have shifted from families to business, with wages stagnant;
  • the outsourcing of Commonwealth service delivery to the private sector (for example, employment services, aged care and VET) has failed and it is clear Canberra knows this;
  • reduction in the value of key benefits, such as those received by the unemployed, has left large numbers without dignity and hope;
  • social housing for those displaced and impoverished by Commonwealth reforms was neglected while we led the world in rising house prices;
  • the Commonwealth has been very late to recognise the consequences for our larger cities of rapid population growth flowing from the time of Peter Costello’s Intergenerational Reports;
  • too many corporations have become rent seekers with little serious commitment to investing in R&D, product and service innovation and staff training (all of which are in aggregate decline across the private sector); and
  • until recently, many of these corporations have been at the heart of deflecting attention at the political level from what most Australians believe is a must do reform in the third wave – urgent attention to decarbonising our economy.”

Many, but not all, of these points may be more about the environment in which current and future public servants must operate, rather than problems of public administration in itself. In this sense, it might seem unfair to reflect that the Thodey report mentioned none of them as obstacles to having the best public service possible a decade from now.

Yet all, and others such as chronic failures in Aboriginal affairs, reflect significant deficiencies of governments, Labor and Liberal, in creating the economic settings, or in becoming slaves to economic ideologies, or in failure to address major policy challenges of our time. And they very much reflect the modern challenges to public service policy formulation. They deserve more discussion.

But so does another: the idea of government as regular, principled, ethical and fair to all comers. On paper, modern public administration – and bulwarks of it such as the Financial Management Act – are based on notions of open and transparent dealings with all comers, probity, honesty and integrity. It is not always the fault of bureaucrats, but increasingly, actual administration seems to involve a plethora of “one-off” deals with single businesses, and a significant decline in accountability. There is rhetoric about open government and about the transparency of decision-making. Against this comes evidence of paranoia about government secrecy and the use of commercial-in-confidence and other mechanisms to hide details of an ever-larger interface between government and business.

Dealing with this is not merely a matter of having crime and integrity commissions, or codes of conduct, necessary as these are. To get better, more efficient and more credible government we need a serious attack on political cronyism and on the power of insiders and special interests in government. We also need fresh controls on deals and arrangements that for one reason or another are outside the general conventions. Vast sums of public money are being doled out, without effective tender, transparency, contest, or debate, to mates, party donors, chancers and big business and developers. It is doubtful whether the public is getting the better of most of these transactions.

And not only at the Commonwealth level. The Canberra citizen has a foretaste of this future, watching ACT land and development politics in action. And consider infrastructure development in Sydney – or for that matter anywhere the National Party is doling out the cash.

Someone making a fuss about Sydney transport planning is Robert Gibbons, a former executive director of planning in the NSW transport department and former general manager of Newcastle city council.

We need a serious attack on political cronyism and on the power of insiders and special interests in government.

The cronyism he says is rampant in infrastructure development is accentuated by mixed Commonwealth-state responsibilities, the provision of enormous sums – in the case of Metro plans $100 million – for private sector consultancies to prepare “business cases” in arrears for projects already decided upon without any real studies.

“Australia, NSW and Sydney have a new style of governance that dumps the Conservatives’ pride in sound financial management and creates a veneer of populist politics to conceal lobbyists’ demands and favours – a cancer that is metastasising through all organs of state,” he says.

“It uses secrecy, not releasing ‘Cabinet’ documents of technical character and redacting 100 per cent of key data in so-called ‘business cases’. They threaten opponents and even insiders who dare to ask ‘why?’… They appoint their acolytes to all advisory posts and filter-out extraneous criticisms and opinions … They similarly devalue outsiders’ intellectual property and steal it without visible moral qualms.

Gibbons has a grievance. He says that successive NSW governments have cherrypicked and plagiarised from advice he has given them. His case for compensation as well as criticisms of waste and poor planning in specific Sydney infrastructure projects can be seen on the rollicking website www.Sydneyscumbagpolitics.com.

“Royal Commissions are much maligned but there is a lot to be said for the daily reporting of expert views, the open discussion of options and alternatives, and the persuasive influence of leaders, compared with what we have seen since the 1960s. …. Sydney is well overdue for an open, professional and totally consultative approach to urban design, architectural quality, environmental protection, and infrastructure systems improvements.”

That might be a good thing in itself, but students of sound public administration might also be fascinated by such an inquiry for the light it could shed on some of the new informal networks of politicians, bureaucrats and insider business folk, some with mixed responsibilities.

We are invited to think of the public service 10 years hence. Without some real reform – and the creation of real fear among the players about future scrutiny of their actions – Australians might have to expect a service more devoted to protecting the minister than serving the public, and, probably for that reason alone, more inefficient, ineffective and corrupted.

Public servants’ jobs will be about keeping a veil over the activities of spivs, mates and cronies transferring public goods into private hands. And over deals and arrangements made without transparency, without the testing of markets, and without assessments of the costs to the public purse and the public interest. That’s the default way we are heading.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. 

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