We need to talk about ministerial control, says APS Review panellist

By David Donaldson

February 27, 2019

Glyn Davis at ANZSOG conference Feb 2019. ANZSOG photo

Ministers, decentralised pay, secretaries cloning themselves — a panel discussion on public sector reform gave an insight into what the APS Review might hold. 

Australia needs to have a debate about ministerial control over the bureaucracy, argues Professor Glyn Davis, one of the members of the panel reviewing the Australian Public Service.

“The big shift in our system was 1984, when new Commonwealth public service legislation tipped the balance toward ministerial control — in quite a deliberate and careful way, because that was part of the ethos of new public management at the time,” he explained at last week’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’ conference in Melbourne, hosted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

“We now live with the logical consequences of that, which is that on a change of government, a whole set of public servants get fired — not because of anything they did, but because of perceptions about what their role was.

“That’s the moment at which you have to say, the system’s lost its rationale and its balance.”

“There’s no nation on the planet that changes its Commonwealth machinery of government as much as Australia.”

The idea was to strengthen democracy — ministers are elected by the people, and bureaucrats aren’t.

But giving ministers so much control is to treat the public service “as though it has no role of its own, it’s simply there as an instrument of the political system”, he said.

“And yet we ask it to be the custodian of a whole set of functions, and we create institutions whose whole purpose is to endure from government-to-government and provide continuity.”

We need only gaze across the Tasman to see how this problem can be fixed. After being the source of many of these ideas, the public service in New Zealand has “reasserted” itself.

“The ministers can no longer fire secretaries in the same way, there’s quite a careful process for termination of secretaries,” Davis said.

“I think we need that debate in Australia. We very urgently need it. It’s not just about the secretaries, it’s actually the message that the independence of the public service has to be protected.”

The issue is tied up with another problematic feature of Australia’s system.

“There’s no nation on the planet that changes its Commonwealth machinery of government as much as Australia,” he said.

“Even when we just have a ministerial change.”

What the APS Review is hearing

Davis summarised some of the main themes emerging from the APS Review submissions, noting that these should not be taken as his own views.

Submissions from Indigenous organisations and Indigenous-oriented agencies spoke about issues that were both specifically relevant to Indigenous affairs and more broadly applicable to public administration. The concerns in the second category were largely the same as other submissions.

“But take the specific ones – there’s a very important concern about Indigenous women in particular not getting opportunities, not only in the public service, but in those organisations now auspiced by the public service through procurement and other processes. There’s a gender bias that’s coming through really strongly,” Davis explained.

“If the Commonwealth is going to see part of its role as encouraging third-party providers, then the values it expresses need to be expressed through those third-party providers. That’s come through really strongly in the submissions.”

“There’s a great concern about decentralised pay and what it means for Indigenous people.”

Pay comes up a lot, too.

“There’s a great concern about decentralised pay and what it means for Indigenous people.

“The risk is Indigenous people are paid less — and I have to say this is a shared concern across the APS — because we’ve decentralised pay, there’s no longer consistency across agencies and we run a real risk that that might turn into systemic discrimination, not that anyone intended it to, but discretion might run that way,” he said.

The former Melbourne University vice chancellor also gave an example of where the federal-state divide made life complicated for citizens.

“The final one specific to ATSI communities was the difficulty of the Commonwealth working with the states and territories around issues of shared responsibility … getting that to work is a real issue,” he said.

“People tell us remarkably silly stories about how there isn’t cooperation. There’s a fabulous organisation called Service NSW which is bringing together all sorts of services into one-stop shops. But the person running it, who did a great job setting it up, says the single most common inquiry at a Service NSW office desk is ‘how do I get a form for Medicare?’

“We’re running completely disjointed systems for people who neither know nor care about the division of responsibility between them. They just want service, and we’re not thinking about them, we’re still thinking about who the organisations are and which jurisdictions they’re in.

“Those become really critical in Indigenous communities, where you rely on two levels of government to deliver services and they’re not cooperating and coordinating. Why is that?”

The other big issue, unsurprisingly, is policy capability — the concern that with so much service delivery and policy development being contracted out that we run the risk of having lost a lot of that ability.

“If there’s a predominant issue that’s come through in consultations it’s that one. There are very different views, not everyone agrees with that assessment.”

Secretaries cloning themselves

Tom Calma

Professor Tom Calma, whose distinguished career includes being the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner and current chancellor of the University of Canberra, thinks politicians are a major barrier to good Indigenous policy.

“For me the biggest problem is the ministers, the politicians.”

“For me the biggest problem is the ministers, the politicians. If we could only sideline them, then we’d see a lot more happening,” he said.

“The separation between politicians and the bureaucracy is a very fine line now compared to what it should be, and it’s ironic that politicians will have a go at organisations like ATSIC and say that you have to have a separation of powers, and yet they don’t practice it themselves,” he thinks.

“The issue has to be how do we as public servants have the capacity to be able to influence change and stand up to the politicians and say that this is the way to go.”

He also argued for younger public servants being given the opportunity to develop their own way of working, rather than just being moulded in the image of current leaders.

“We’ve got to get away from senior bureaucrats cloning all the graduates under their own style of management.”

Making change happen

While the bureaucracy can seem vast and faceless from the outside, the business of change is often very personal.

Davis noted the historical influence of persistent individuals when it comes to improving Indigenous policy.

“Where things have improved, it’s because of individuals…”

“If decisions are made by those who turn up, then programs change because they are advocated by people,” he said.

“Ian Anderson and I did some work a couple of years ago looking at Indigenous leadership, and tracking intellectual history. The remarkable thing was the number of outstanding leaders that have been, generation after generation, often in the most adverse possible circumstances, thrown up, who’ve advocated change in a coherent and tangible way, had a lot of trouble getting heard, persisted, and seen it through.”

Government should focus on identifying those potential leaders and giving them support, recognition and encouragement, he said.

“Where things have improved, it’s because of individuals, because they have articulated what the values are that institutions should be following.”

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