Pezzullo and Campbell demonstrate the need to review the APS values

May 4, 2024
Mike_Pezzullo_joined_by_officials_at_the_Five_Country_Ministerial,_Washing_DC,_September_2016._c U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -, Public Domain, Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco.

Mike Pezzullo’s mea culpa should convince no-one that he understands the seriousness of his breaches of the Code of Conduct or the responsibilities that go with being a departmental secretary.

He still seems not to appreciate the fundamental Westminster principle of the separation of politics from administration. He blurs the two in his claim that he was really only exercising bureaucratic influence, not political influence, and only got some of the channels wrong. His behaviour was blatantly political in both substance and the channels of influence he used. As such, he clearly did not uphold the APS Value of being ‘impartial’ which under the Public Service Act includes being ‘apolitical’; he therefore breached the APS Code of Conduct. (Lynelle Briggs of course found a number of other breaches.)

Amongst the statutory responsibilities of secretaries is to be a ‘leader, providing stewardship within the department and … across the APS’. Surely this implies even more integrity than that required of SES officers who must ‘by personal example … promote the APS Values’, not just uphold them. Pezzullo’s suggestion that his behaviour only warranted censure or reprimand shows how little he appreciates the leadership responsibilities of secretaries.

Central to the role of a secretary also is a relationship of trust with ministers – the secretary’s own minister, the other ministers with whom he engages directly or indirectly, and indeed the Government and the Opposition as a whole. As senior politicians on both sides have made clear, Pezzullo’s behaviour caused the loss of such trust. He had to go. Any less a penalty would have revealed a degree of tolerance for secretaries’ untrustworthiness and diluted the importance of the APS Values.


Following the Robodebt Royal Commission, Kathryn Campbell has also been forced to leave, though as yet no formal breach of the Code of Conduct (or other illegal behaviour) has been found. The Royal Commission expressed concern about a number of aspects of her behaviour including her ‘failure … to give … frank and full advice’, that she ‘chose to remain silent’ when Cabinet was misled and, while ‘responsible for a department that established, implemented and maintained an unlawful program’, ‘she did nothing of substance’ and ‘failed to act’. There are also strong criticisms about her department’s (and DSS’s) lack of engagement and consultation with clients which ‘inevitably led to a program where the perspective of recipients … was nowhere to be found in its design and was paid no attention during its continued operation’.

These criticisms suggest strongly the likelihood of Campbell failing to uphold the APS Values, ‘impartial’ and ‘committed to service’. ‘Impartial’ includes the requirement to provide ‘frank’ advice, the related Commissioner’s Direction spelling out the requirement that advice ‘is not affected by fear of consequences, and does not withhold important facts or bad news’. The Commissioner’s Directions also spell out, inter alia, that ‘committed to service’ requires ‘engaging effectively with the community and providing responsive, client focussed service delivery’.

Clarifying the values

The Robodebt Royal Commission stated that many of the failures of public administration it found can be traced to features of the APS structure, including ‘a lack of understanding on the part of some of those involved of the APS’ role, principles and values’. It also referred to the Thodey Report whose recommendations ‘were largely directed at the need for a clear understanding of the APS’ role.’ Amongst these are Thodey’s recommendation to codify new ‘principles’ in the Public Service Act to complement the existing APS Values.

While the Royal Commission did not explicitly endorse this recommendation, the reference to it suggests strongly its concern about whether the current articulation of the APS Values provides sufficient clarity of the role of the APS. I share that concern, but do not support the Thodey proposal for a new set of ‘principles’. A better and simpler approach is to review the way the APS Values are articulated.

(As an aside, it is unfortunate that the Royal Commission did not include in its own recommendations its explicit endorsement of Thodey recommendations such as on secretary appointments, the powers of the APS Commissioner and a legislated code of conduct for ministerial staff. As a result, the Government’s response to the Commission’s recommendations makes no mention of these.)

Pezzullo’s case demonstrates confusion over the meaning of ‘impartial’. The wording in the Act refers to being ‘apolitical’ and to providing advice to the Government ‘which is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence’. Only in the relevant Commissioner’s Direction is there reference to the wider meaning of being impartial, of ‘implementing Government policies in a way that is free from bias, and in accordance with the law’. That is, ‘impartial’ is not just about the apolitical nature of the APS’s relationship with the Government, but also about fairness in its relationship with the public.

Campbell’s case demonstrates confusion over the meaning of ‘committed to service’. The wording in the Act refers to achieving the best results for both the Australian community and the Government. The relevant Commissioner’s Direction spells out requirements for engaging with the community, providing client-focussed services and appropriate and accessible information (and ensuring decisions are objective and impartial), but it also requires the APS to be responsive to Ministers. Again, there is a blurring of the responsibilities of the APS to the Government and to the Australian public. Missing from the Act itself is any sense of a ‘spirit of service’ to the public that is in the NZ legislation that Thodey drew attention to when proposing new ‘principles’.

The Public Service Act Amendment Bill before the Parliament does not address any of these issues. Nor does it propose putting back ‘merit’ in the Values (merit being one of the ‘principles’ proposed by Thodey drawing on NZ practice, and the original focus for a professional civil service in the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report). The Bill merely proposes adding ‘stewardship’ to the Values.

A far clearer articulation of the Values, reflecting Westminster principles, would be based on the relationship the APS as an institution has with the Government and the Parliament, with the Australian public, and within its workforce.

In its relationship with the Government and the Parliament it must be apolitical, loyal to the democratically elected Government, and accountable through the system of ministerial responsibility. In its relationship with the Australian public, it must be impartial, responsive to citizens and communities and inclusive. In the workplace, merit must form the basis of all employment arrangements. And the APS should meet the highest ethical standards.

For the most part, these Values are complementary. To the extent to which they may be in tension in a particular instance, judgments need to be made ensuring upholding one does not involve failing to uphold another. This articulation, however, would make such judgments far easier than the current confused articulation.

This framework could also be used to clarify the different values required of the Parliamentary Service (whose accountability is not based on ministerial responsibility), ministerial staff (who are not required to be apolitical and are not subject to the strict merit system applying to the APS) and other MOP(S) Act employees whose accountability is primarily to their employing MP and through them to the Presiding Officers of the Parliament.


Republished from THE MANDARIN, May 02, 2024

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