Respecting the distinct roles of the ADF and the APS

Jun 28, 2021

The ADF and the APS are institutions in their own right, and are not just subject to the Government’s directions. Their roles should be respected, recognising their commitment to serving the public and their focus on impartiality and the longer-term interests of Australians.

In her recent op-ed in the AFR, Lesley Seebeck provides a thoughtful commentary on the Government’s use of the military to assist with the vaccine roll-out and its apparent disdain of the public service. John Menadue in his more recent piece in P&I expands on Seebeck’s concerns.

Militarism has become the norm. We now even have an Army Lieutenant General heading the vaccine roll out

While I share many of Menadue’s concerns about the evident preference for uniformed personnel over public servants, let me explore a little more deeply some of the issues involved.

The public service has never been popular. Since Dickens’ description of the Department of Circumlocutions, the public service has been the butt of popular criticisms of inefficiency, disregard for the people it’s meant to serve, pedantic application of rules, lack of common sense and empathy, arrogance and self-interest. At the same time, many front-line public sector workers – teachers, nurses, police, firefighters and the military – remain amongst the most trusted professional groups.

It will probably always be thus.

Yet behind the stereotypes there has usually been public understanding about the important role of a professional, apolitical civil service advising the government of the day and implementing its programs and policies impartially for all Australians. It is an essential component of a strong democratic state. And there is wide acceptance of the need for civilian oversight of the military.

Public sector reforms in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s addressed many of the weaknesses in the public service identified by the Coombs Royal Commission:

  • The public service was made more open, its decisions open to appeal, its workforce more inclusive;
  • Its administration was subject to closer scrutiny for efficiency and effectiveness, with many functions open to competitive pressures;
  • Democratic oversight was strengthened through increased ministerial control including by the introduction and expansion of ministerial staff and the curtailment of tenure of departmental secretaries and other agency heads.

Most of these developments had merit, but there is reason now to suggest some went too far. In part, I would suggest, this is because two of the theories behind the reforms were taken too far.

Public choice theory applied economic theories to politics and public administration. In doing so, it emphasised the self-interest of public servants, suggesting politicians should be sceptical of the advice they receive in case the advice reflects desire for bigger budgets, more staff, more pay, better conditions. It added excessive weight to legitimate concerns about efficiency and competitiveness, questioning the motives of public servants, and ignoring any altruistic factors. It also contributed to the view that public sector management should mirror that in the private sector.

Principal-agent theory focused on the problem of ‘agents’ having different interests to those of ‘principals’. It gave weight to the importance of close control over those charged with the implementation of government policies and programs. Ministers, as ‘principals’, need to take clear charge of public servants, their ‘agents’; they could equally turn to other ‘agents’ both for advice and for service delivery particularly if they felt better able to control them.

Particularly under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments, these theories seem to have been pursued even when they have undermined efficiency and diluted important public service values.

Running cost reforms which promoted efficiency through capped administrative expenses have been supplemented by caps on public service staffing, forcing increased use of contractors and labour hire even when this adds to costs. Contractors and labour hires are not subject to formal (if any) merit processes and are not bound by APS Values such as impartiality or commitment to service. Some contracts require knowledge and skills transfer to the public service, but it is not really in the contractors’ interest for this to occur. The likely result is a loss of public service capability and a dilution of public administration integrity.

Increased political control of the APS also runs the serious risk of going beyond legitimate democratic oversight, of undermining impartial administration and the provision of frank and fearless advice in the public interest. The ‘Sports Rorts’ and ‘Robodebt’ cases would seem to provide evidence that the risk is real.

Over the last twenty years there has been increasing research evidence that public servants are not motivated by self-interest alone (something Australian public servants past and present have always known). James Perry from the US has pioneered such research across a wide range of countries demonstrating that ‘public service motivation’ is real. His latest book, Managing Organizations to Sustain Passion for Public Service, sets out ways in which this motivation can be drawn upon to improve the capability and performance of the public sector, and how it justifies management approaches different from those used in the private sector.

Of course, Government attitudes towards the public service (and the military) are unlikely to have been consciously influenced by academic theories. A cynical view might suggest it is influenced far more by electoral assumptions, that public servants tend to support Labor and the military tends to be more right-wing. Such assumptions may be correct in the broad but represent sweeping generalisations that should not be relevant when considering institutional roles and how they might be best conducted.

Turning to the military, its strength is in undertaking clearly specified missions whose objectives are articulated clearly by the civilians responsible. Strict command and control and excellence in the ‘profession of arms’ are hallmarks of its professional culture. This is not to dispute its critical contribution to strategic policy advising and its ability to prioritise competing requirements, but it is generally more comfortable in an environment where instructions are clear and ambiguity between ‘black and white’ can be minimised. It has proven many times to have strong project management skills, managing in particular the logistics of crises. But the public service is generally more experienced in the murky policy world of competing objectives, including with regard to defence strategic policy.

The public sector reforms of the 1980s and 1990s affected the military as well as the public service. In particular, the Commercial Support Program in the early 1990s with which I was involved systematically reviewed ADF support activities to see whether military delivery was essential and, if not, whether lower cost civilian, including contracted out, delivery could be equally effective. Very significant savings were achieved, that were able to be redirected to the ‘sharp end’ of military capability.

One impact of these reforms was to more clearly focus the ADF on its core responsibilities. The expertise within the ADF was still available from time to time to assist with non-military activities, but this was not allowed to displace its core responsibilities.

What is essential today is appreciation of the separate roles of the ADF and the APS and respect for the professionals within each. There are many occasions when collaboration between the two is essential, and there will be times when seconding people from one to assist with the responsibilities of the other will make perfect sense. Perhaps an army general expert in project management is well positioned to assist with the vaccination rollout, but this is not a long-term solution and the APS must ensure it has that capability into the future.

More generally, the Government needs to recognise that APS capability is essential to the success of its policies and programs, and that the APS is an institution in its own right, and is not just subject to the Government’s directions. It also has a different culture to that in the private sector, one that should be respected, recognising its commitment to serving the public and its focus on impartiality and the longer-term interests of Australians.

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