Morrison’s Public Service “reforms” do us no favours

Dec 12, 2019

The mergers of Australian Public Service Departments announced by Scott Morrison on 5 December will do nothing to advance the cause of good government. The claims of efficiency gains that invariably accompany such announcements always turn out to be illusory, and, far more importantly, result in matters that ought to be debated out in full Cabinet being tucked away in individual portfolios.

Also, despite some lip-service paid to “frank and fearless advice” this reorganisation smacks of a desire for a public service that does what it’s told – a machine for the implementation of policies that are handed down from on high.

In announcing the changes the Prime Minister insisted that they were not done as a savings measure. That is good, because mergers of departments never produce the savings or efficiency gains that are usually claimed for them as part of their justification. They are immensely costly and disruptive. Established lines of advice, command and control within departments are broken or disrupted, likewise established channels of communication between departments.

Domain knowledge and/or case knowledge are lost or dislocated. In this case we are losing the services of five department secretaries, who have been thanked for their wonderful service even as the Prime Minister is steering them towards the door. But that is just the start of it. How many others will be made redundant or given roles less suited to their talents because they are less congenial to the new chain of command than they were to the old?

Departmental senior managements are forced to turn inwards for an extended period. Different ways of doing things in the day to day running of the newly merged departments or parts thereof have to be rendered compatible, usually by the hiring of expensive IT consultants who invariably over-promise and under-deliver, usually attended by substantial cost over-runs. Decisions have to be made about who will get what job, and where they will be located.

What the Prime Minister did say about the changes in the machinery of government is that “having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision making, and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people”. The new structures “will drive greater collaboration”, will “break down the silos”, and will “ensure that important policy challenges in which different parts of the public service are working on, can work more effectively on together” (sic.)

It is important to decode what is being said here. One fears that some of this “bureaucratic congestion” of which the Prime Minister speaks consists of highly educated, articulate and well informed officials tendering the “frank and fearless advice” that the Prime Minister claims to value – either to him, or their Minister, or in inter-departmental debate. Scott Morrison’s political mentor John Howard was no fan of “frank and fearless advice” – it was made clear to those of us who were Department Secretaries in his time that “frank and fearless advice” was a quaint old-fashioned notion that was seen as getting in the way of an elected government doing what it was elected to do, and that we were expected just to get on with implementing the government’s policies. It is reasonable to assume that Scott Morrison is of a similar mind: the tone of his media conference at which the changes were announced certainly suggests so, as does his emphasis on the public service’s role in service delivery rather than policy development.

Perhaps the “bureaucratic congestion” to be busted is also conflict in Cabinet arising from Ministers having differing views on a matter on consideration (perhaps as a result of their officials having given them frank and fearless advice). Reducing conflict in Cabinet was one of the benefits that John Dawkins, Minister Assisting Bob Hawke on public service matters, saw in the mergers by which he created the first round of mega-departments in 1987.

Let me say categorically that there ought to be conflict in Cabinet. If there is not, someone isn’t doing their job. Life is full of conflicts and trade-offs, and we elect governments to make decisions about how to manage them, where to draw various lines.

Consider the new Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Here the conflicts are very obvious. In the Murray-Darling Basin, decisions have to be made about how much water is available for agriculture, and under what circumstances, and how much is available for the environment. These are matters of vital national significance as well as of vital significance to the communities who live along the river. Cabinet is the correct forum in which to resolve these conflicts.

But what will we have? Three Cabinet Ministers, served by one hapless Department Secretary. In response to a perfectly reasonable question from a journalist about who would be the senior minister in the new department, the Prime Minister replied:

The portfolio Minister for the Environment which is Sussan Ley is responsible for the environment and Bridget McKenzie who is the Minister for Agriculture will be responsible for agriculture policy and David Littleproud is responsible for water policy. It’s not uncommon for departments to have multiple ministers. They have multiple ministers now. And so the officials that work in these departments respond to the minister that is responsible for those portfolio issues. So who’s the senior minister on environment? Well, it’s the Minister for the Environment. Who’s the senior minister on agriculture? It’s the Minister for Agriculture. It should be very plain.

So we are going to “bust bureaucratic congestion”, improve decision making and “break down the silos” by having three ministers, all of Cabinet rank, none of which has authority over the others, and all of whom are “the senior minister” in their own domain. You could not make this up.

How are conflicts to be resolved under this bizarre arrangement? How does the senior minister for agriculture resolve with the senior minister for the environment how much water is to be available for either function, when there is a third person who is the senior minister for water? What if, as has happened in the past, two ministers in the portfolio flatly refuse to have anything to do with each other, and/or their staffs are at each others’ throats? How many decisions that ought to be made in robust debate by a well-informed Cabinet, will in practice now be made by unelected officials?

The Americans have a very fine word to describe what I see this new arrangement becoming. That word is “boondoggle”.

Paul Barratt is a former Secretary, Department of Primary Industries and Energy and a former Secretary, Department of Defence.

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