Frank and fearless? The insidious politicisation of the public service

Nov 13, 2021
parliament house canberra politics
Our political system needs donations reform. (Image: Unsplash)

Public servants’ independence continues to be eroded by the use of consultants, closer control of communications and weakening of checks and balances.

Public Service Minister Ben Morton made a number of refreshingly positive comments about the Australian public service (APS) in an interview with The Canberra Times this week. And the approach he advocated for improving the capability and performance of the APS has some merit. But his defence against charges of politicisation ignored the evidence and failed to acknowledge the many drivers that governments of both persuasions have fostered over the past three decades.

On the positive side, Morton referred to the APS response to COVID-19 as “textbook”. While overlooking some of the failures on vaccines, quarantine, digital tracing apps and the overly generous JobKeeper, he rightly referred to the advice on health and economic action on which the government had relied and the successful handling of the huge increase in the volume of transactions without undue queues. He claimed he was not ideological about contract staff and referred to his desire to see APS capability in data, digital and cyber expertise in particular increase.

He also expressed concerns over the inability of more junior and middle-level staff to contribute to making their organisations work better, and his wish for the public service to be “efficient, effective, agile and responsive — serving the government and also the people”. This interest seems genuine, reflecting his support for some of the work done in Finance and Services Australia to make better use of technology and modern work practices in both corporate and public service delivery.

The University of Canberra’s John Halligan defines “politicisation” as the expansion of the political sphere within the executive. Political oversight of the public service is a critical aspect of democratic government, but Westminster principles require a degree of independence in order to serve the public impartially and efficiently. The balance has been shifted towards the political sphere by a number of developments over recent decades, not just the appointment and termination processes for senior public servants. They include the extensive use of political advisers, the increased use of contractors and consultants, the closer control of communications and the weakening of checks and balances such as the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), FOI Act oversight and the ombudsman.

The impact at the Commonwealth level can be seen in the sports rorts and car parks controversy, and at the state level in the current cases before ICAC in NSW and IBAC in Victoria. While public service advice on robodebt has yet to be made public, it is hard to believe there was sufficiently “frank and fearless” advice provided to the government on the illegality of the measure. The pathetic attempt to make the national cabinet a subcommittee of the Commonwealth Cabinet simply to avoid FOI also reflects badly on the political sphere’s desire to limit scrutiny.

Morton leads with his chin in defending Phil Gaetjens’ role as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and being put in charge of political inquiries. Gaetjens is not the first head of PM&C with some personal links with the prime minister that give rise to legitimate questions about non-partisanship. Asking him to conduct political inquiries can only add to the perception of political bias. It is not outrageous therefore for the Opposition leader not to commit to his continued appointment in the event of a change of government. But this increasingly common practice of having the head of PM&C personally linked to the prime minister and their policies and values adds considerable weight to strengthening the role of the APS commissioner, not just to be the “head of people” in the APS — as APS review chief David Thodey recommended — but to be the “professional head of the APS”, leading the promotion of APS values and the merit-based processes for all senior appointments.

While complaints of political appointments to head departments go back to Federation, there is little doubt that the shift to contracts by the Keating government in the early 1990s provided the opportunity for much firmer political oversight of appointments and terminations. John Howard as prime minister took advantage of the new system to dismiss six secretaries in 1996 and added to the pressure for “responsiveness” to the government by shortening many contracts to three years, taking advantage of “vacancies” when contract terms ended and introducing performance pay (which he determined after advice from the head of PM&C and the APS commissioner). Kevin Rudd took some steps to reverse these moves but they proved insufficient to stop Tony Abbott dismissing another three secretaries in 2013. Malcolm Turnbull resurrected two of these (Martin Parkinson and Andrew Metcalfe) but Scott Morrison demonstrated his determination to exercise close control through Gaetjens’ appointment and the termination of three more secretaries in early 2020.

In the past, some secretaries claimed that “frank and fearless” advice was a matter of character not tenure, but most public servants know that the rewards and penalties have changed and that this has contributed greatly to the “promiscuous partisanship” that Canadian public administration academic Peter Aucoin observed across Anglophone countries some years ago. The desire to please ministers has become so strong that advice is too often shaped accordingly, including by not being provided if not wanted.

While Morton claims not to be ideological about contract staff, and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham seems to have relaxed staffing caps over the past year or so, the government still does not recognise that those caps have nothing to do with efficiency or effectiveness and can only represent a bias against public service employment. The caps on running costs provide the appropriate discipline, requiring public service managers to decide on efficiency and effectiveness criteria alone whether to use APS employees or contract staff. The ballooning expenditure on consultants and contractors also undermines APS values and risks the very abuses that gave rise to establishing a professional civil service following the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report.

Not mentioned by Morton is the politicisation caused by the increasing number and power of ministerial advisers. Including state and territory advisers as well as Commonwealth ones, Australia has a veritable army of such staff. Whereas originally most were public servants on secondment, and others were often politically aligned experts, now they form the most common career path for future politicians. As political apprentices their role is dominated by actions to maximise the political success of their ministers and to minimise the risk of political failure. The result too often is a determination to control the public service and all communications rather than to partner with the public service to develop and implement policies that are in the public interest. Another risk is that they undertake party-political work rather than the government work they are paid to do.

The problems of ministerial advisers are by no means restricted to current Commonwealth government practice. Indeed, Victoria seems at present to have the most serious problems. According to a study by The Age in August, Premier Daniel Andrews’ private office alone has 87 ministerial staff outside the public service. While some suggest that a return to the use of more public servants on secondment might curb excessive political pressures, there is no less risk of that contributing to the perception of partisanship among those returning to the public service. That is precisely the danger revealed in the Age study.

More important is to introduce firmer accountability provisions for all advisers with firmer employment rules and a clear set of rules for seconded public servants when they return to the public service to ensure non-partisanship. At the Commonwealth level, the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act needs a fundamental review. In the meantime, however, even the Thodey recommendations for clearer accountability were rejected.

While Morton acknowledged the need to improve APS capability in selected fields, he has not publicly recognised his government’s (political) constraints on APS capability building more generally. Apart from the issue of staff caps and excessive use of consultants and contractors, the government’s policies on APS remuneration and resourcing for administrative expenses are detracting from attracting, developing and retaining the talents needed and from ensuring capacity to maintain the quantity and quality of public services, particularly by smaller agencies. Indeed, Morton followed up his interview this week with a defence of the government’s cap on wage increases when what is needed is a proper and careful market assessment which I strongly suspect would reveal both excessive and inadequate remuneration while helping to identify a way to achieve consistent remuneration across the APS.

Nor of course did Morton address concerns about the funding of the ANAO, the Information Commissioner or the Ombudsman, or the inadequacy of its proposed ICAC, all important to constrain the political sphere of the executive in order to advance the public interest.

In 2020 and 2021 the APS enjoyed almost a “spring” in terms of its standing with the government and the public. Its policy development role was acknowledged at long last by the prime minister, it was allowed to communicate its expertise in public and its efforts in service delivery were praised. Morton continued this line in his interview. But there is no sign of lasting reform, no reconsideration of the Thodey recommendations that were rejected back in late 2019 and no acknowledgement of improper political decision-making.

It will be interesting to see the positions taken by both the government and the Opposition when the Senate inquiry into the current capability of the APS reports before the end of the year.

 Andrew Podger made a submission to the Senate inquiry into the current capability of the APS and appeared before it in August.

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