MICHAEL KEATING. -Covid-19 and the role of expert advice

The response to Covid-19 has raised an important question about the role of expert advice in the formulation of public policy, and whether it can and should be independent advice.

As Jack Waterford has argued compellingly ( JACK WATERFORD.- The not-so-dirty secret the COVID-19 panel wants to hide Part 1) it would seem “that the government is not really getting ‘independent’ advice from its independent professional committees”. Instead, the expert advisers’ “truth-telling is … tailored to their view of what they believe they can persuade the politicians to do”.

This concern about the way these expert medical committees have conducted themselves would seem to represent a further unfortunate development in what many people see as the improper “politicisation” of the public service.

This article therefore discusses the appropriate balance which should be struck by senior public servants between independence and responsiveness to the government in their advisory capacity. A key conclusion is that a distinction should be made between advice that inevitably involves value judgements, often between competing priorities, and those issues where purely expert advice is being called for.

The shift to a more responsive public service

Under its enabling legislation the Australian Public Service is meant to be apolitical, serving not only the Government, but also the Parliament and the Australian public. The APS has traditionally interpreted its apolitical status as requiring it to be independent of the Government of the day, but that still raises the question of how independent?

In the 1980s the Hawke Government introduced reforms that were deliberately intended to make the public service more responsive – not only to the government of the day, but also to the public.

I think it can fairly be said that the catalyst for these reforms was the sense of frustration experienced by both the Whitlam and Fraser governments that their agenda was quite often resisted by major elements of the public service.

My own personal memory of the APS culture during that era was that some senior public servants’ interpretation of “APS independence” could extend to protecting what they deemed to be the national interest. These senior public servants were suspicious of what they considered to be the populist instincts of democratically elected governments. Instead, they thought they knew better what was in the national interest, and their frank and fearless advice too often insisted on their way or no way.

For example, senior Treasury officers were convinced in the 1970s and into the 1980s, that the nation’s priority must be to “fight inflation first”. As the Treasury saw it, this meant that in the absence of a more restrictive fiscal policy, they must use their power – and they did think it was their power – to keep interest rates and the exchange rate as high as possible. This was justified in their opinion by the overwhelming need to bear down on any inflationary pressures. And that is why the Treasury also opposed and frustrated all attempts by the Fraser Government over several years to even consider financial deregulation, including a more flexible exchange rate.

I suspect, however, that these days at least, most people (including me) do not think that public service independence can justify senior public servants impeding government policies that they consider to be against the public interest. Furthermore, I think this is the background as to why the Hawke Government introduced reforms during the 1980s to make the public service more responsive.

In my view, those public servants involved in policy development do need to ensure that their advice has due regard for the values and priorities of the Government of the day and its policies. Furthermore, I think this can be done while providing honest advice frankly and fearlessly, including their duty to warn about possibly unforeseen and unintended consequences. It is typically more a matter of how rather than what advice is provided.

In short, public service policy advisers need to win the trust of the Government of the day. But if that trust is established and maintained, then in the past ministers did value frank and fearless expert advice, and there was a very creative partnership between the government and the public service.

The role of health experts as advisers

So, what does this shift to a more responsive public service imply specifically for the role of health experts when asked for their advice?

These health experts have been operating in a policy environment where the Morrison Government strategy has been to try and balance the requirements of both health and the economy. As Waterford describes, the Commonwealth medical advisers seem to have also accepted this policy framework when proffering their advice, rather than focussing uniquely on what policy response would best reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The results from this strategy, however, have proved to be too little too late. In effect, the evolution of both health and economic policies has been an effort to continually try to catch-up. Instead, it would have been better if the expert health advisers had stuck to their last and only advised what they thought would best resist the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, as it turns out, that approach would have limited the damage to the economy, as the longer businesses have to suspend their operations and lay-off staff, the more difficult it will become to resume production when the virus is eventually defeated.

Conclusion

In my view, there are situations where policies are balancing competing objectives (although I contend that the response to the Covid-19 virus is not one of them). Where there are competing objectives, however, the key policy advisers do need to understand where the Government is coming from, its priorities, values and policies.

This is especially true of those people who are coordinating the policy advice – for example, in Prime Minister’s Department or Treasury or Finance. Equally, however, those people who are only asked for their expert opinion, should give exactly that and not try to second guess what are the Minister or Government’s priorities or preferred course of action.

Accordingly, a health expert should be guided only by what is best to achieve the minimisation of the health risks, just as an engineer advising on building standards should advise on what is most structurally sound, and aviation experts should advise on how best to protect aviation safety. If there are resource constraints, then these experts should first advise what resources will be required, how to obtain the required resources, and only if necessary, how best to live within any resource constraints.

But these subject matter experts are not there to second-guess how best to protect broader policy objectives such as the economy, nor what priority the economy should have relative to the health of the population. This broader policy advice is outside their expert knowledge base and remit.

Finally, I think public service advisers, or any other source of expert advice, should be very cautious about being involved in the presentation of government policies, let alone the selling of the policies.

For example, I recall that Rudd, when Prime Minister, constantly evoked the advice of Ken Henry, as Secretary of the Treasury to “go early, go hard, and go households”. That proved to be very sound advice, but I don’t think it helped Ken Henry. Nor did it help the Rudd Government. That Government might have won the political debate if it had not hidden behind Ken Henry and instead mounted its own defence of what was a very good economic response to the GFC.

For similar reasons, I think it would be better if the Chief Medical Officer was not present, almost as a matter of course, at all the press conferences dealing with the Government’s health response to the Covid-19 virus. The Government seems to want the Chief Medical Officer to provide a cloak behind which they can hide when making unpopular announcements. But again I doubt that this works, and it diminishes the independent expert status of the Chief Medical Officer.

Furthermore, I note that the Secretary of the Treasury is not present at the announcements for the economic response. That responsibility falls to the Treasurer, and I think an independent APS should observe the same division of responsibilities for health policy.

Michael Keating is a former Head of the Australian Public Service

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Michael Keating is a former Secretary of the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and Employment, and Industrial Relations.  He is presently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. 

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