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The Centre for Strategy and Governance shares its views (succinctly and politely) on the APS Review

What do former mandarins think about the Australian Public Service Review so far? Quite a lot, and not all of it is flattering.

So, when a group of 21 mostly former department and agency heads produce a succinct, three-page response to the review panel’s interim report, it is worth paying close attention.

It is easy to see the authors, known collectively as the Centre for Strategy and Governance, have had plenty of experience of delivering frank and fearless advice to ministers.

They have homed in on what they believe are the two biggest problems that the review must address: the role of the APS in the framework of ethical government, and governance arrangements to maintain and reinforce that role.

They have also given a polite thumbs down to a number of the report’s suggestions, not least designating the Public Service Commissioner “head of people” and removing “ethical” from the APS Values.

The CSG is a virtual association of independent consultants who between them have nine AOs, one AC and a bunch of public service medals.

The advisory board is chaired by Tony Blunn, who needs no introduction in Canberra as an eminence grise, having run several departments, lastly the Attorney General’s.

The current members are Lynelle Briggs, Gordon de Brouwer, Vanessa Fanning, Greg Fraser, Peter Grey, Bruce Glanville, Jeffrey Harmer, Ken Matthews, John McMillan, Ian McPhee, Russell Miller, Lisa Paul, John Simpson, Meryl Stanton, Mike Taylor, Vivienne Thom, Alan Thompson, Anthea Tinney, David Tune, Helen Williams and Michael Woods.

Suffice it to say they have enough collective expertise run the entire APS in a heartbeat.

The CSG put in a longer submission to the review last year. Their new, short response has three sections: “APS – a National Institution”; “APS Governance”; and “Other Challenges”.

Under the first, they say, “An essential basis for the most efficient and effective operation of government overall is a clear understanding by all parties of the role of the APS in the broad framework of governance, alongside the role of ministers (including ministers’ offices) and the parliament.”

It would be “helpful” if the review panel clarified this framework, setting out the role and responsibilities of each and suggesting ways for making it a major part of induction to the APS and also to parliamentarians and their offices, reinforced in “an ongoing way”.

The panel should clarify the APS’s responsibilities, including building the capacity to provide high-level policy advice underpinned by good information. This required a strong research capability, a deep understanding of public value, and the APS continuing to be a repository of corporate memory.

It should also reinforce the APS’s responsibility for delivering frank advice without fear or favour, and affirm its responsibility to provide high-quality services for Australians in delivering the government’s policies and programs. This included building a deep understanding of how government systems work and an ongoing appreciation of processes, or emerging processes, that enable programs to be delivered most effectively within resources.

“Wide understanding of the role of the APS as the impartial and ethical institution that advises the government of the day on its policies and programs, and implements those programs, is crucial to maintaining the trust of ministers, parliament and the Australian people.”

Fully appreciating and working in accordance with the APS values was of central importance.

The review panel had said it was still exploring whether the values should be amended. The paper it had commissioned from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government had recommended returning ‘merit’ to the values, and the CSG strongly supported this.

“But [the ANZSOG paper] also recommends removing the word ‘ethical’ from the values and [replacing] that term with ‘trustworthy’,” said the CSG. “The CSG believes that removal of ‘ethical’ would be a serious error, delivering a negative message. Ethical conduct is a critically important value and should be retained in the values of the service.”

Under “APS Governance” the CSG members also urged the panel to recommend a practical governance framework to reinforce the APS as a significant and valuable national institution. The office of the Public Service Commissioner was of central importance and the Commissioner’s role should be strengthened as the “Institutional Head of the APS”.

“The term ‘Head of People’ [suggested in the panel’s interim paper] would constrain this role and inadequately describe the part it should play in the new paradigm.”

The Commissioner should:

  • chair selection panels for secretary positions (of which the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet should be a member);
  • have a major role in the movement or removal of secretaries; and
  • return to the practice of signing off all appointments to the Senior Executive Service.

The Australian Public Service Commission should have a greater role in building and nurturing APS capability, including taking charge of cross-service succession planning. “In this context, the CSG supports the review panel’s suggested reinstitution of capability reviews.”

The CSG also supported an appointment process for the Commissioner similar to that for the Auditor-General (it did not propose changing the process for appointing the secretary of PM&C).
It warned that creating a Commissioner’s advisory board, as suggested by the panel, may work against the independence the Commissioner must have and be seen to have.

Provision could be made instead for the Commissioner to choose two part-time statutory advisors for terms of, say, two years, to discuss particular issues where necessary.
In labour relations, the Commissioner’s focus should be on the APS rather than on broader Commonwealth public sector employment.

The CSG endorsed the panel’s suggestion that the Commissioner’s (expanded) role should be legislated.

Finally, it raised two other challenges requiring “more prominent consideration” by the panel:

  • Are the checks and balances currently under discussion sufficient to ensure secretaries give frank and fearless advice to ministers or should present tenure arrangements be addressed?
  • Do current differential pay scales militate against a “whole of APS” ethic and discourage mobility, and should firmer action be taken?

The panel would be wise to grasp the nettle on all these points. Everything flows from them.


Read more: the CSG’s latest submission to the review follows its initial thoughts submitted last October.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.