ADDRESS TO INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AUSTRALIA CANBERRA
Posted on Wednesday, 22 May 2002
My first inkling of the real mettle of the Australian Public Service came as a new Member of Parliament on my first visit to an office of the then Department of Social Security. As I approached the building a client was leaving, blood pouring from a wound inflicted by an out-of-sorts girlfriend belting him with a pool cue. At that moment, I started to understand that counter level public servants require rather more steel than the average bank officer.
As anyone who thinks about it knows, the Australian Public Service provides the muscles and sinews of our national life. The cash flow which sustains the elderly and incapacitated, the planning which facilitates Australia’s physical and human infrastructure, the logistics which sustain the armed forces, the legal and regulatory framework which underpins our very civilization, all this and more is the work of public servants. Of course, most people don’t think about it – hence the dismissive references to time-servers and fat cats and the old line about “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.
Of all people, ministers of the crown should know that an efficient, adaptable, and committed public service is the pre-requisite of good government. When ministers succeed, there is usually a small army of public servants who have turned an embryonic idea into something which can make a difference to the way people live. When ministers stumble, there is often at least one public servant whose warnings were ignored. The world beats a path to politicians’ doors. The lobbies are crowded with people to speak for industries, institutions, regions, mates, causes. But ministers are supposed to speak for the nation and can’t do so without public servants to cast a discerning but unsentimental eye on everyone’s pet projects.
I confess that it took me a little while to appreciate the parallels between the Australian Public Service and the Canadian Mounties – in that failure is just not contemplated once a task is underway. My first acquaintance with the public service in government comprised a series of ministerial briefings at which, it seemed, one side was speaking German and the other French. This was due, in part, to public servants’ propensity to take knowledge for granted and professional reluctance to assume that ministerial briefs need to be pitched to the average reader of a tabloid newspaper. Mostly, however, it was due to an opposition mind-set and an initial failure to grasp senior officials’ innate trustworthiness and professionalism.
A notorious pragmatist once brilliantly captured rulers’ dependence on good advice. Princes, it was said, should choose the wise men in their states and give them the exclusive right to offer truthful counsel. The prince “ought to question them upon everything and listen to their opinions and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these counsellors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that the more freely he shall speak the more he shall be preferred”. A prince “ought always to take counsel but only when he wishes and not when others wish…However, he ought to be a constant inquirer and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired (and) on learning that anyone, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt”. Instinctively, I have tried to make full use of the public service according to this dictum of Machiavelli.
When ministers take the public service into their confidence, they invariably discover a remarkably effective instrument for implementing the will of government. A couple of examples from personal experience are the welfare reform process (of which more in a moment) and the Job Network.
Creation of the Job Network involved the replacement of a 50 year old bureaucratic monolith with a wide range of private, charitable and community-based employment agencies. The Department of Employment had to turn itself, almost overnight, from a provider of services into a purchaser of services. These were not services traditionally provided to government but services provided by government so the department had to learn to treat contracts as guides rather than rule books and contractors as partners rather than third parties. Inevitably, there were transitional problems but within 12 months 1200 public servants and about 7000 Job Network staff were obtaining 20 per cent better outcomes at up to 50 per cent lower cost than 14,000 public servants operating under the old system. A transition of this sort takes original thinking, courage and institutional self-denial of a very high order.
Any serious analysis of unemployment quickly exposes the systemic disincentives which often make working more trouble than it’s worth and almost programme people to fail. For more than a decade the employment portfolio has been promoting and implementing policies designed to activate the long-term unemployed who can so easily sink into a culture of inertia and self-pity or, alternatively, treat welfare as a lifestyle subsidy topped up by unofficial odd jobs. Because its officers actually work with job seekers, the Department has been way in advance of media and academic commentary which still assumes that unemployment is a simple function of too many workers chasing too few jobs. This consistent preference for giving people something to do rather than just a fortnightly cheque has helped bring Australia’s “natural” (or structural) rate of unemployment down from over 8 to about 6 per cent (or, to put it in better perspective, taken nearly 200,000 people off the dole queue at any one time).
Apart from continued good economic management, further big falls in unemployment require more work on the perverse financial incentives which keep people poor. Thanks to the new tax system and the working credit initiative in last year’s budget, this Government and its public servants have already done more than any of their predecessors to tackle poverty traps. Even so, thanks to the interaction of tax and welfare, some families still face 100 per cent effective marginal rates of tax. For instance, a family of two adults and three older children moving from an earned income of $600 to $850 a week can actually be $28 a week worse off (depending on the children’s ages) thanks to reduced benefits and increased tax. Australians in this position are too completely absorbed in the struggle for self-respect to lobby politicians or complain to the media. These are today’s “forgotten people”, yet we know about their predicament because conscientious officials want our system to be fair.
Following the work of the McClure Committee, a welfare reform forum is examining policy options to ensure that, at any given level of income, people can earn an extra dollar and keep a worthwhile percentage of their efforts. The Government will soon release a paper based on the forum’s canvassing of various options ranging from simplified and unified welfare benefits to more systemic changes which have people paying tax or receiving welfare but not both at the same time. The forum comprises people in the field and academics supported by senior officials of three departments and staff of three ministers. The remarkable feature of this work, given the querulousness and defensiveness of much of our public discourse, is the intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and shared commitment to a worthwhile goal of all participants. This ambitious work-in-progress is typical of the Australian public service at its best but also characterizes the public service as a whole. Ever since the first public service commissioner, Duncan McLachlan, literally capitalized in the public service rules, “what the commonwealth requires are brains which can devise new and better methods”, Australian officials have reveled in challenges.
It is my not-infrequent experience to call public servants at home on the weekend and find that they are at the office rather than down the coast. In a public life marked by instant experts, single issue preoccupation, and self-advertisers, the really refreshing characteristic of most senior officials is that they know the facts, have thought about the options and don’t care who gets the credit as long as the job is done. Australia is incredibly lucky to have a cadre of senior public servants who are diligent to a fault, culturally self-aware, brighter than the average businessman or politician, and much less ready than before to begin debates by assuming that everything will work out for the worst. They have a sense of history and the debt owed to great forbears such as Garran, Melville, Shedden, Brown, Wheeler and Stone. They understand Australia’s enduring values and interests and have a grown-up approach to whatever happens to be the theory of the moment. Contrary to Sir Humphrey stereotypes, the modern Australian public service is focused on making things happen rather than explaining why nothing can be done.
As Minister Assisting for the Public Service, I should comment on aspects of its characteristic accountability, impartiality and professionalism.
The Westminster model survives, though it’s messier than it used to be. Although senior public servants are now directly answerable to the parliament for their actions through senate estimates, the principle (and largely the practice) of accountability through ministers remains. Although senior public servants are expected to speak for themselves rather more than before, their mistakes (if any) are generally seen to be someone else’s fault (at least by the media and the opposition). For their part, ministers have little interest in assigning blame to public servants, even when they might want to attribute to them direct responsibility for a particular decision. In a certain maritime incident, for instance, ministers rightly attributed no fault to officials who wanted to clarify information before passing it on. Similarly, despite the merciless cross-examination they inflicted in that case, the media and the opposition are hardly going to demand the head of a public servant rather than a ministerial resignation. Public servants have a greater need to explain themselves than ever before but remain in principle and largely in practice responsible to ministers. An unforgiving media and feral opposition mean that public servants are more likely to be embarrassed but not more likely to be required to resign.
Another issue is the role of ministerial advisers. The growth of ministers’ personal staff was originally thought to create a rival source of policy advice, added means of interfering in the work of the public service and more opportunity for ministers to exercise influence without responsibility. Like public servants, ministerial staff are accountable through ministers to the parliament and to the people. In practice, although ministers can’t be held responsible for every act of their staff, they are routinely held responsible for the overall quality of action and inaction by their staff and the general conduct of the administration of their portfolios. Working well, staff are an extension of busy ministers enabling them to cover a much wider range of policy issues and to scrutinize a wider range of programme administration.
Inevitably, after each controversy there are calls for more rules. In government administration, problems typically arise from errors of judgment rather than breaches of the law or a total breakdown of ethical behaviour. I’m skeptical about new regulations which might turn out to be better at tripping conscientious people focused on doing their job than trapping villains who know how to cover their tracks. As the Public Service Commissioner, Andrew Podger, has recently reminded us, the Act already requires officials to be honest, accurate, comprehensive and timely in their advice and administration and to uphold the APS Values and comply with the APS code of conduct. Ministerial staff agreements already require advisers to act with skill, discretion and integrity. It’s hard to see how more prescription will produce better government as opposed to more complicated administration as people focus on who they told rather than what they did.
A politically impartial public service is one which can act with equal efficiency for either side of politics – not one which picks and chooses which government policies to implement. The provision of “frank and fearless” advice should not be confused with becoming an in-house opposition. As Tony Ayres once commented, light-heartedly I’m sure, “to tell a minister he or she is wrong once is essential, twice is desirable and three times is suicidal”. Except where it requires illegal or unconscionable acts, public servants are required to carry out the policy and programmes of the government of the day efficiently and enthusiastically. As Dr Peter Shergold said recently, public servants need to imagine “that we stand in the shoes of a minister who is participating in rigorous political and public debate, facing hostile parliamentary questioning, contributing in an informed way to Cabinet deliberations or seeking to respond sympathetically to the interests of constituents and citizens”. As the ANU’s Richard Mulgan put it, “the public service always wears the colours of the government of the day”. Ministers, MPs and public servants shouldn’t be uncomfortable about serving on the same team.
Despite at least a decade of change and modernization, senior officials retain an old-fashioned sense of vocation, of serving the nation as much as holding down a job. Most could earn more doing something else but remain at their posts from a sense of calling. Making money is entirely the wrong motivation for public servants. At the top level, public servants are quite modestly paid. Secretaries of departments earn about as much as the prime minister. Deputy secretaries of departments earn about as much as ministers. Junior public servants, by contrast, are quite well paid compared to their private sector equivalents.
The Government strongly supports the spread of individual agreements in the public service not just because this should, over time, produce higher productivity and more pay but because it’s a more appropriate basis for the work of professional people. The ability of various departments and agencies to handle massive changes without widespread strikes and bans is a sign of public service professionalism as well as changed legislative arrangements. “What’s in it for me” is an understandable human reaction to change but is quite out of place in a public servant’s professional mindset. Different styles, conditions and hours of work should not threaten professionals who are happy to take responsibility for their work. Professional public servants ought to expect a collegial relationship with their managers rather than one determined by a “one-size-fits all” industrial instrument. Above all, professional people should be prepared to back their own judgment if necessary rather than habitually deferring to a group.
The public service has been reasonably swift to utilize the workplace freedom and flexibility this Government has introduced. In the last round of negotiations, nearly 40 per cent of agreements have been made directly with employees (compared to about 10 per cent economy wide). About 5 per cent of public servants are employed on Australian Workplace Agreements (compared to about 2 per cent economy-wide).
Ultimately, the Government is more interested in how public servants carry out their duties than in whether agreements are collective or individual, with or without unions. If public servants want secret ballots they should have them but ballots ought to decide the substance of how people work not the form of their negotiations. Ballots, in any event, are part of a culture of collective decision-making which doesn’t easily co-exist with the maintenance of professional standards and responsibility.
I suspect that part of the campaign for union-negotiated certified agreements in departments is public servants’ fear of being taken for granted. The CPSU offers members the illusion of protection against further workplace change. In fact, comparatively high rates of unionisation did not prevent significant down-sizing in the Government’s first term, just as much lower levels of union membership don’t mean that public service managers will lose interest in the core business of government.
There are some things only public servants can do. It’s hard to conceive of privatized police, courts, prudential regulation and welfare supervision. “Essential services” need not always be delivered by government but government must ensure that they are, in fact, actually delivered. Where the delivery of services is devolved to non-government organisations, contract management is a painstaking task which cannot readily be surrendered to the private sector without creating impossible perceptions of conflict of interest. The era of doing more with less is giving way, I suspect, to an understanding that there are some things we can’t afford not to do. While the public sector should not rise as a percentage of GDP, and the search for economies will never end, the era of “permanent revolution” has been replaced with an appreciation of the competence, commitment and indispensability of the Australian Public Service.
As the Prime Minister said in 1997, “the responsibility of any government must be to pass onto its successors a public service which is better able to meet the challenges of its time than the one it inherited”. Under all governments, the public service has provided institutional ballast, corporate memory, and a permanent commitment to fair dealing and the rule of law. As always, its quality has depended less on the directives of government than on the initiative and character of its senior members. Equally with the parliament, the courts and the armed forces, the Australian Public Service will remain one of the essential pillars of a great democracy.