Martin Parkinson: public servants should school rookie MPs and ministers

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday December 18, 2018

The public service should provide professional education to new members of parliament, ministers and staffers so they can do a better job, in the view of senior Commonwealth secretary Martin Parkinson.

The head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been thinking about how the Australian Public Service contributes to “the health” of Australian democracy. Training for MPs, ministers and their staff was one of two areas where he said the APS could be doing more, in his end-of-year address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia last night.

He also thinks the APS could do more to question the need for machinery-of-government changes and be more transparent about how much they cost, in terms of time and energy as well as money. Governments should only undertake them “judiciously” and after “careful consideration” of the pros and cons, in his view.

With an election around the corner, Parkinson clearly hopes the urge to restructure can be kept under control. One problem was “they turn organisations inward” for a significant period. The APS sees too many restructures, he said, typically “for reasons that are unclear” to the public servants involved.

“The result is disorienting for our partners and disruptive for our staff.

“And it’s even more so if there’s no compelling rationale for the change, for example, if the change is driven by political logic such as rewarding a minister, rather than … improving the life of the citizen.

“Institutions and organisations take time and effort to build but are quickly damaged. If they deserve condemnation and reform, that should actually occur, but if not, I would urge caution and counsel against regarding the APS as a set of Lego blocks to be painlessly recreated.”

However he seems more concerned with the impact of longer-term domestic issues, a rising sense of “deep global uncertainty” and the international trend of declining trust in liberal democratic governments.

The speech ended with praise for the present-day APS and optimism for its future, but began with a note of concern. In distrusting times, Parkinson is worried his colleagues in the wider public sector are losing heart, as citizens increasingly doubt their competence and good intentions.

“When others doubt us, we doubt ourselves,” Parkinson said, referring to the “crisis of confidence” observed in a national survey by IPAA federal president Peter Shergold, as well as in submissions to the APS Review panel.

“When our partners and public doubt our capability and integrity, it is not surprising that we’ve come to doubt ourselves. The public mistrust our beneficial intent. They doubt we’re in fact intent to do the right thing, and they mistrust our competence.”

He said his colleagues — secretaries and agency heads especially — should be “really, really concerned” by all this pessimism in the ranks, as it would only make things worse with general public confidence in decline and the appeal of “simplistic responses to complex public policy conundrums” on the rise.

Martin Parkinson’s school of government

The PM&C secretary thinks MPs and ministers get with too little training for such important roles. He suggests the APS could generally raise the bar in Australian democracy by providing some professional education, assuming “it took a sufficiently long perspective”.

He said the APS had “tended to shy away from” this kind of role and it might seen as a radical proposal, although it had worked elsewhere.

“Our politicians and their staffers, whose actions and decisions have such important consequences for Australia, receive no prior training before taking up positions that are central to our democracy.

“Think about it: no training on the operation of government, on their personal roles and responsibilities, or the separation between the apolitical public service and their own, correctly, political roles.

“As a former senior minister once remarked to me, you can learn a lot about social and economic policy by being a parliamentarian and representing constituents, but beyond that, it gets harder.”

Parkinson nominated defence, international affairs and national security as areas that were “necessarily opaque to outsiders” and therefore difficult for ministerial ingénues to learn about.

He explains public mistrust in government as a global phenomenon that appears unrelated to either economic conditions or policies of any particular ideological bent, but is probably exacerbated by growing social divides – and a growing gap between expectations of governments and how well their agencies deliver, separately from the policy decisions of government.

“We can build confidence and trust through sheer competence and self-evident capability,” said the PM&C secretary, “and increasingly our technical aptitude will be the mark of confidence.”

Or the other way around, of course. In any case, the job is made harder by frequent and unnecessary restructuring.

The PM&C boss kept the faith in “better data” as a practical way to enhance policy, and digital channels to improve service delivery.

“That’s all good, but we could also improve our capability by structuring our government departments according to a clear administrative logic, the alignment of functions and purpose to ensure ease of access to citizens, and then keeping them relatively stable,” he added.

After his plea to politicians to stop and think about the cost of restructuring, the senior mandarin noted Scott Morrison had avoided machinery-of-government changes and instead, established cross-portfolio reporting lines so some departments report to more than one minister.

Renewing the faith in democratic ideals

It is the job of the APS to support “inclusive, reasoned and transparent public debate about policy issues” and doing this well is another way it can contribute to the health of democracy, in Parkinson’s view.

He told his colleagues “guarding [their] independence” was also important, both in advice and in terms of providing equitable access to services. They should be supporting the electoral process through caretaker conventions, and pushing for evidence-based policy, even though it might not be welcome.

“Better evidence and greater transparency helps mitigate the power of vested interests. It makes it easier for government to listen to the full range of voices in our community, and make decisions in the public interest.

“That’s why we, the public service, should be champions of evidence-based policymaking, but as Gary Banks has observed, that requires both supply and demand for evidence-based policymaking. We can provide the supply, but others have to be willing to provide the demand.”

Parkinson stayed on message about the upcoming review: the APS is “not broken” right now but needs “transformational change” soon. This change required a “compelling vision and a powerful narrative” to be successful, he added, and it should reflect “a deep confidence in the profound worth of democratic values” that made Australia a relatively successful liberal society.

The PM&C chief said liberal ideals were mostly ways of “managing differences” in society, listing “freedom of speech, assembly, and political participation, rule of law, respect for dissent and for the views of others, mutual tolerance and acceptance of diversity and difference, equality of the sexes and before the law, respect for individual rights and private property, and that uniquely Australian commitment to a fair go for all”.

His ideal concept of Australia’s national identity is “open, tolerant and nourished by an undiminished confidence in the values of liberal democratic principles and institutions” — but not tolerant of intolerance.

“Diversity is undoubtedly a source of social and economic dynamism — but too much diversity on basic issues regarding our commitment to our nation’s underlying values becomes problematic.”

According to Parkinson, liberal democratic ideals also clarify the role, or at least the ideal, of the public service: both “an effective policy apparatus” immediately ready to snap into action for a new government and “the bedrock of democratic governance” that is exacting and apolitical.

“The APS is the custodian of continuity and administration. It’s a repository of knowledge, administrative competence and policy capability.”

He said an increasingly diverse workforce could also be more successful through having a wider range of views and disagreements expressed, as long as this was encouraged by an inclusive culture as well.

The APS, in Parkinson’s firm view, should be on the side of keeping the nation together, not allowing it to fracture into “a world where people have lost trust in big institutions and old, established brands [and] they prefer to connect only with their local communities, embracing place-based approaches, buying locally, and relying on tailored services” – one of several alternative ideas of the near future imagined by the APS Review panel.

“That might sound idyllic, but in fact I think it’s a pretty bleak scenario. If it comes to pass, our national institutions will not have been successful in earning and retaining the trust of our citizens.

“And it’s unlikely, in that case, that we will have been successful in stemming the erosion of social cohesion. So let me be clear on this: we absolutely need to deliver place-based approaches but they need to be nestled in coherent, cohesive national strategies and approaches.

“I’m personally optimistic that we can do that as a service.”

Parkinson is also hopeful that “the seeds of renewal and innovation” exist in Australian democracy, and a “compelling and powerful” vision of APS reform can be realised and reinforce liberal democratic values.

“These are not matters in which the APS should shy away. We should not be tentative, we should not be apologetic. We should be proud, powerful and on the front foot.”

See the full address in the video below, produced for IPAA ACT Division by contentgroup.

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