Public service reform must be future focussed

Aug 15, 2023
Business people gears concept.

Public service reform is back as are the old tropes of merit based appointments, frank and fearless advice, and better preparation and training for APS leaders. These legacy markers of public service excellence need a thorough rethink if tomorrow’s challenges are to be met.

No counterfactual exercise exists to validated a merit selection process, and according merit is inherently subjective; affected by personality preferences, ideological compatibility, familiarity, or the weighing of particular experience. It’s not scientific. Merit based selection generally avoids disastrous outcomes. But the results are mostly conservative and don’t guarantee any reinvigoration or improvement of the public service.

Frank and fearless advice is a notion empty of substantive content except in relation to the most uncontroversial and clear cut situations; such as when information vital to the success of government action must be provided. It doesn’t matter how frank or how fearless advice to government is if it’s not expert or pertinent, and not framed with wellbeing and welfare of the nation in mind.

Andrew Metcalfe has observed that future Australian governments will need to “navigate highly complex geopolitical, economic, environmental and societal challenges”. An understatement. Despite recalling the truism that “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, he strongly advocated training for leaders that “should particularly focus on case-study styled methodology of what has gone well in the past, and what hasn’t, and why” so they can “benefit from the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before”.

APS experience with program and project management, procurement, risk management, documentation, and record keeping, has produced many lessons that should be passed on. However on a range of substantive policy issues – global warming and climate change, environmental conservation and collapse, indigenous incarceration and poverty, for example – the past performance of the public service is not to be emulated.

Metaphysics, ethics, or the essence of human nature, have not preoccupied public servants. But very soon policy makers are going to enter unknown parts where the traditional skills and typical areas of knowledge and expertise of public servants will be insufficient.

As machines become more human-like and humans become more machine-like governments will face unique and unanticipated policy problems. The future being manufactured by the modern Doctor Moreaus and Victor Frankensteins will bedevil policy makers and disrupt legal, social, and ethical norms. On top of the unprecedented policy challenge Artificial intelligence (AI) poses, consider the implications of Brain to Brain Interface (BBI) innovations and germ line gene editing (GGE).

Fear of geostrategic or economic rivals gaining an advantage will drive AI research. It’s enthusiasts anticipate “a new renaissance for humanity, a new era of enlightenment”, but others think AI will find “ways to manipulate or kill humans who aren’t prepared for the new technology”. Some even predict a “threat to civilisation” emerging, or even the extinction of mankind. Some say AI will bring about a “rupture in the fabric of human history”..

BBI involves direct communication between two brains via a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) has been demonstrated in the laboratory. Currently it is seen as a “future battlefield technology” that could enable future soldiers “to process large amounts of data derived from an extensive networks of humans and machines” Commercial applications easily can be imagined for BBI as a mature technology.

GGE is regarded as “a necessary procedure for future long-term human space missions”. Once considered too great, the GGE risks are being reevaluated “ given scientific advancements in gene editing”.

GGE might be employed to address the common biomedical challenges facing astronauts; radiation and carcinogenesis, immune system dysregulation, bone and muscle atrophy, and neurocognitive impairment, and to improve the physical and cognitive capabilities of the military. GGE can already produce heritable ‘improvements’ to the basic human DNA template, enabling greater longevity, athleticism, cognition, health, and more. On the way to a new species?

Collectively these and other cutting-edge technologies comprise a new eugenics project where genetic, physiological, orthopaedic, mechanical, sensory, and cognitive interventions and enhancements are endorsed as being necessary and beneficial. Empowered by new powerful technologies, aided by AI, numerous programs for improving the basic human model and eliminating negative traits are currently being driven by researchers working on space research and military applications.

Research in to “human space travel will likely lead the way for enhancements because of available funding”, and although it is difficult “to conceive exactly what will emerge from the physical and cognitive changes that enhancements will support” researchers nevertheless maintain “we must believe that they will be wonderful”. Not a luxury available to policymakers.

Should parents be able to modify embryos to produce enhanced children that are smarter and live longer? Or governments oversee programs enhancing individual ability to survive and reproduce in the hostile environments in space or the battlefield? Do machines that appear conscious warrant rights? How would legal accountability be identified in a collective mind or a shared human machine consciousness? Is it government business to interfere in individual human enhancement choices? Against what criteria will governments judge the equitable access to and affordability of enhancement technologies? Can democracy and justice persist when some are a lot more than just more equal?

These and many more imponderables will confront future public servants. Deep theological and philosophical assumptions about human nature and society are raised and both benefits and risks exist. Many of them deeply moral. The commercial and social applications of human enhancement technologies will increase inequality and give the wealthy not just better lives, but maybe equip them and their offspring to weather climate change. The implications for warfare are significant.

Merit selection, frank and fearless, and better training have all been important mainstays of an efficient, effective, and professional public service and to a considerable but imperfect extent limited nepotism, politicisation, and malfeasance. That’s not to be scoffed at. However, unless they are rethought with the object of addressing the future not the past and staying a pace with the transformational changes taking place they will prove to be inadequate.

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