Swathes of pro-integrity rhetoric no match for departmental “accountability shyness”

May 30, 2023
The Australian coat of arms at the new government house in Canberra.

This is a brief, unhappy yarn about the struggle for accountability and integrity in a Commonwealth government organisation. The yarn’s principal character is the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), now headed by Dr Glyn Davis, the de facto leader of the Australian Public Service (APS). The Department is at the forefront of promoting what it calls a “pro-integrity culture” and setting an example for others.

But first let’s get some of the law and the rhetoric straight.

The Public Service Act sets “accountability” as a public service value and says that “the APS is open and accountable to the Australian community.”

This year’s Budget Paper No 4 says that the APS is “a trusted and transparent partner that embodies integrity”.

The “APS Leadership Capability Framework talks about “a pro-integrity culture” with a “citizen-centric focus”.

The Secretaries Charter of Leadership Behaviours sets out what Secretaries “expect of themselves” and others urges public servants to be “open, honest and accountable.”

So, putting aside the quaintness of this modern management mumbo-jumbo, so far so good.

How well then does the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet live up to these lofty goals?

On 6 May, the Department was asked what recommendations of the 2019 Thodey report on the public service had been implemented, part implemented or not implemented.

On 16 May, it replied with words for attribution to the Public Service Minister. It didn’t answer the question, contenting itself with the bromidic advice that “The APS reform agenda is well underway….[that] it addressees the majority of the Thodey recommendations” and that “to date 37 of the 40 recommendations in the Review are underway.” 37 of the 40 recommendations are “underway”? What the heck? The Thodey Report is now four years old.

Sensing that this response if used could expose the Minister, Dr Davis and the Secretary of Public Service Reform, Dr de Brouwer, to sharpish references that may not be fair or warranted, the Department was asked to reconsider its reply.

It said that it would and several times a spokesperson, who was a model of courtesy, telephoned to say that there was some delay in preparing further advice although it was being worked on. Fine.

Then on 24 May the spokesperson called again and said that the Department was now not prepared to say anything about the current status of the Thodey recommendations. The response sure had been “worked on”.

Mind you those slaving on public service reform in the Department have been hard at it.

For example, they’ve set up a 40 person Deliberative Committee to draft a “purpose statement” to “reflect a contemporary, diverse and innovative APS” and to provide “a foundation for coherent leadership, service alignment and shared execution across the APS”. It’s understood that the “shared execution” is not a part of any disciplinary procedure.

The Deliberative Committee will, with the aid of “facilitators”, develop six statement options. They are to be “noted” by the Minister and then referred to the Secretaries Board.

The Board will “refine” the options down to three with these being put to a vote of “all APS staff and the public.” How the vote for “the public” is to be arranged is not explained but one “option” might be for it be held on the same day as The Voice referendum as a matter of convenience for those excited members of the public keen to pick one of the three options. It’s understood that people in Burnie (Tas) and millions of others not enjoying the comfort of the “Canberra bubble”, can’t wait to get at it.

And when the vote is in, the verdict will be announced, not by the Minister or the Secretaries Board or Drs Davis or de Brouwer but by the Deliberative Committee. It will then be put to sleep for a well-earned rest, with the possibility of it being woken up in five years time to test, no doubt with the help of facilitators, whether the statement should be revised in case it hasn’t succeeded in providing “a foundation for coherent leadership, service alignment and shared execution across the APS.”

Thus officials of the Department, no doubt with the encouragement of Drs Davis and de Brouwer and under their sharp-minded supervisory eyes, have been exercising their fervid imaginations to the maximum degree, working with purpose to create six versions of a purpose statement. Let’s take our hats off to them and the Davis headed Secretaries Board because few outside their “contemporary, diverse and innovative” milieu could make this sort of stuff up no matter where they stand on the agility index.

But notwithstanding the demands of all this kind of critically important activity, preparing a list of what Thodey recommendations have been implemented or not should only take a middle ranking clerical officer in the Department 15 minutes as the well-staffed APS Reform Office must have a running sheet with all relevant details at hand. After all, the Department has been able to say that 37 of the 40 recommendations are “underway” so the knowledge is “on tap”.

An acid test of the reasonableness of a department withholding information is whether it could be refused if requested by a parliamentary committee. Could PM&C refuse to tell a committee about the current status of the Thodey recommendations? Of course it couldn’t, yet it’s prepared to give its touted “citizen-centric focus” the wobbles by denying that information to a humble citizen.

So why isn’t the Department now advising on public service reform willing to live up to the values in the Public Service Act and the great swathes of rhetoric about accountability, transparency and integrity which it routinely pumps out?

Happily in an indirect way the cat has been let out of the bag with respect to this one. In documents about possible amendments to the Public Service Act published late in May on the PM&C website it is clear that it is ignoring some of the most important and critical recommendations of the Thodey report which both Davis and de Brouwer were part authors of. For example, the Department’s draft does not include actions on Thodey’s recommendations about the appointment and tenure of Secretaries of departments notwithstanding burgeoning unease about the malign influence these have had on good old frank and fearless and the part they have likely played in the Robodebt disaster.

Many words could be used to describe the accountability shyness of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in this little yarn. One begins with “h” and ends in “y”, another ends in “t” and begins with “b”. Take your pick or take both.

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