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APS review: panel member Glyn Davis senses momentum for a major rethink

Submissions to the ongoing Australian Public Service review indicate enthusiasm for fundamental changes rather than just a few tweaks and adjustments, says panel member Glyn Davis.

Davis notes the major change from a generation ago is clear: now, nearly all of the federal government’s core services are contracted out, meaning the taxes that fund them flow out into a large and growing group of for-profit and non-profit service providers, whose staff are not subject to the same level of accountability as public servants.

Glyn Davis

The former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor, now a Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, discussed the review with Crawford School director Helen Sullivan in a podcast published on Friday.

Some of the most bold proposals and interesting arguments have come from non-government organisations and representative bodies like the Australian Council of Social Service, he comments, and these demonstrate significant support for a “fundamental re-conceptualisation” of not just the APS, but the relationship between citizens, civil society and government representatives.

“And that’s quite a challenging set of arguments because it starts from a different point from all traditional reviews – it forces you to ask the question of why we’re doing this,” Davis observes in the latest Policy Forum Pod.

Sullivan agrees the submissions suggest growing momentum behind a sense that something more than mere “tinkering” is needed, and she sees that as a positive sign amid all the concern about surveys and election data showing public trust in government dropping away sharply in recent years.

“I think there’s an appetite for people wanting things to be different – ‘let’s do things differently,’ or ‘let’s focus on what the real problem is’ – in a way that perhaps some people might have been surprised by, given that we’re all supposed to be now so apathetic about government and have no trust in our institutions,” she comments.

“So I think there’s something quite hopeful there about the extent to which people are engaged in this process of review, and wanting to get people like Glyn’s attention on what they think they should be dealing with.”

The question of capability decline

“… maybe we’re not as respectful and appreciative of existing public servants as we should be.”

The two professors also observe that public servants as a group and the work they do are often criticised in Australia, and their individual views could be a valuable addition to the conversation. Sullivan cites recent comments from a former head of the APS, Terry Moran, that the private sector had leapt ahead of the public sector in terms of management and leadership skills, and suggests two potential conclusions.

Either government agencies need to invest more in developing their staff members, she said, “or maybe we’re not as respectful and appreciative of existing public servants as we should be.”

The hosts had received a very similar question from another professor in the public administration field, Janine O’Flynn from the University of Melbourne: is there a strong factual basis for the capability-decline narrative, or is it more an example of an Australian tendency to talk down the public sector, despite its fairly good international standing?

“I take Terry Moran very seriously, but Janine’s right, we are very hard on public servants in this country,” Davis diplomatically replies, adding that Moran is far from alone.

“I think what Terry is talking about is declining capability across the sector and there’s no doubt that is coming through strongly in the submissions.

“It’s a very difficult thing to measure empirically … but there is clearly a concern among those who’ve written submissions that we’re losing capability, and people have provided many examples from different parts of the Commonwealth where they feel that a generation earlier, we had more people who knew, who had careers in [a particular] area, and had more substantive knowledge.”

The review panel would be remiss to buy into the narrative completely, he adds, because these sorts of views are often bolstered by a rose-tinted view of the good old days, but there is clearly something in it.

Davis points to Treasury as a key example. He says it is much smaller than it used to be, and not because it has automated a large amount of administrative work. It simply does less policy work than it once did, and is a less attractive employer to graduates in the relevant fields as a result.

There has been a drop in the prestige of APS grad programs across the board, in Davis’s view.

Corruption and the Commonwealth

“Davis points to one specific area where the federal integrity system could be tightened up: the rules about where former ministers can go to work after they leave government, which do not apply to public servants.”

Ethics and integrity are another topic that has come up in the review submissions, with two contrary positions emerging. Some say the federal integrity regime is relatively good, and accept that if there was significant, systemic corruption, it would be exposed.

Others argue the opposite: the controls are so weak, nobody knows what level of corruption really exists around the expenditure of Commonwealth funds.

Davis says there is a link between these integrity concerns and outsourcing; those with the latter view feel integrity risks have increased with so much public service work being contracted out, and he thinks they have a point.

Without a federal integrity commission like the state-based anti-corruption agencies that investigate these things, he says it is very hard to know empirically how much corruption affects the Commonwealth.

“But you’d have to say, you’d want to be confident if you’re going to contract out billions of dollars at a time, that you knew what you were doing, and we’ve had a series of clear public disasters with this, of which the vocational education one is the one that most people have lived through, endured, watched with horror,” he continues.

“We appear to have similar issues in aged care, we may have some issues in disability services – these are all areas in which we’ve contracted out most of what government does – we’ve contacted them out to private providers, and often for-profit private providers, and we’ve provided incredible incentives to really get into this business without necessarily being confident that the ethics are being followed.”

Davis observes that while contract terms could be used to enforce accountability and integrity to some extent, a large and growing number of people are nevertheless doing public service work, under contract, without government taking responsibility for their training or imposing the same ethical code. And, he adds, the more public service staffing is constrained, the more the workforce “on the other side of the equation” grows.

This is not the fault of that growing external workforce pursuing public purposes under contract, he adds.

“But the truth is we’ve taken money that was in one stream and was fairly carefully subject to the [auditor-general’s oversight] and all that, and we’ve shifted it out and put it into a different format.

“It is audited, of course, there are control systems, but nonetheless, who knows whether we have a problem?”

Sullivan notes the federal system is also quite reactive — problems only come to light well after they occur, whether through a scandal or a formal mechanism like an independent audit.

“We’re not very good at accountability as a sort of productive, positive, future-oriented activity,” she says.

Davis points to one specific area where the federal integrity system could be tightened up: the rules about where former ministers can go to work after they leave government, which do not apply to public servants.

As a member of the panel, he acknowledges cynical perspectives on the review are understandable since it has a very long line of predecessors, a few of which led to “profound change” while many others did not. He quips that he had worked on one that did not, referring to the 1983 Reid inquiry, which employed him as a researcher while he took a break from doctoral studies.

On the other hand, says Sullivan, the stack of reports from past reviews at least provide a body of evidence that could help sort the “perennial problems” for the public service from the newer and emerging challenges, although she suspects these resources are largely untapped. The newest addition to the canon arrives in the first half of 2019.

The full hour-long discussion is available below, and is hosted by the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society’s web page, where there are links to five relevant articles mentioned by the speakers.

READ MORE ON THE APS REVIEW:
Ex-mandarins weigh in on the future of the APS
How Andrew Podger reimagines the APS
Martin Stewart-Weeks: what is the point of the public service?
Agency heads allow regulations to wilt: Treasury insiders
Heavyweight operational agencies enter David Thodey’s ring
APS review hears all about the view from the bottom

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.