More former mandarins put the squeeze on the Thodey review

By Verona Burgess

May 8, 2019

Two former public service commissioners walk into a bar. Well, not a bar, but a Canberra restaurant. There, a number of distinguished former mandarins and other assorted lunch companions unanimously delegate them to respond to the Thodey review’s interim report.

Andrew Podger and Helen Williams are a rare combination, having each run several departments as well as the Australian Public Service Commission.

Along with other former mandarins, they have politely rejected the suggestions that the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet be designated “head of service” and the APS Commissioner “head of people”, and have also given the thumbs down to a formal advisory board for the commissioner (the latter being “unsound in principle and in practice”).

Podger and Williams’ 13-page response, plus attachments, commends the review for releasing some of its commissioned research but says, “We remain disappointed, nonetheless, about the lack of data and analysis … and the limited material that has so far been provided by APS agencies. It could be argued that this in itself demonstrates some of the weaknesses in APS capability and independence that need to be addressed.”


“As always,” they add, “the devil will be in the detail, and many of the initiatives … are described only in broad terms at this point. Moreover, there are some significant omissions we hope the review will address in its final report.”

They question the statement that the APS is “not broken”.

“While it is not entirely clear what that suggestion means, it could be read as understating current and emerging problems and challenges. The … suggestion of an aspiration statement, ‘a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians’, is also inadequate as a meaningful response to the problems that exist.”

On the loss of public trust in government, measures to enhance trust in the APS may well be part of the solution, but they say politicians, including ministers and their political advisers, must share a significant component.

They agree that clarifying the distinctive roles and responsibilities of the political and administrative arms of government could do much to re-build public trust, including trust of ministers in the APS. “This is a first priority issue, and the measures suggested … do not do it justice. In particular, firm action is needed to strengthen the degree of professional independence of the APS, and its self-confidence as an institution.”

As for the APS being “united”, while important, this is not new and has partly been addressed already.

“Coordination and collaboration is always an issue in public administration and has been a particular theme for the APS now over the last 15 years (specifically highlighted in the 2003 [Management Advisory Committee] report, Connected Government). More recently it has been reflected in amendments to the PS Act and in the new Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (PGPA) Act. Indeed, on an international scale, Australia would rank highly on coordination given its Cabinet processes and supportive financial management and administrative infrastructure.”

They say there is already a common purpose in the PS Act (“an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public”) while the APS’s two main roles (advising government and implementing its policies and programs) are widely understood if not formally legislated.

“Revisiting the way the [APS] values are now articulated to give them more meaning would seem to be more important than introducing a new and insufficiently purposeful aspiration statement that many staff may struggle to relate to.”

Also missing is any analysis of developments since the Coombs Report and what may be learnt from Australia’s experience with New Public Management reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, and from subsequent New Public Governance reforms.

“What was successful and what was not? What unintended consequences resulted, and what needs to be done to address them? Such analysis is essential to any assessment of what needs to be done to make the APS ‘fit for purpose’ into the future.”

In a nutshell:

They also caution against legislating a stronger role for the secretaries’ board. “It is ministers who exercise Constitutional authority over administration, and Cabinet by convention is the mechanism for collective responsibility and overall direction”.

They recommend clarifying the APS’s appropriate degree of independence, strengthening the APSC’s role, ensuring top appointments (including agency heads) are based on merit and revisiting the APS Values, including restoring “merit” as a core value.

They are not convinced more operational flexibility is needed. While there is room for more use of project teams to address urgent cross-portfolio issues, they say there is also a strong case for more stability in government structures and continuity in many areas, to deepen expertise and strengthen relationships with communities and external stakeholders.

“The review should clarify the principles behind ongoing [Machinery of Government] arrangements and the use of different governance structures. It should also clarify its view on how the APS should be funded and how remuneration should be set.”

Proving that you can take public servants out of Finance but you can’t take Finance out of them, they add, “One major omission is discussion about how departmental expenses should be funded. The removal of efficiency dividends is long overdue and funding should be more closely linked to outputs and output prices.” They recommend using the Consumer Price Index not only for running costs but also for wage increases. “If running costs are properly controlled, there is no need for any cap on APS staffing”.

They agree capability is a high priority. “But the report gives insufficient attention to the apparent loss of capability in the APS, to the importance of subject matter expertise and to the expertise needed to be an informed purchaser, in addition to emerging new capability requirements.”

There’s more, including on ministerial staffers, but you’ll have to read it yourselves. Rest assured, however, that many of Canberra’s former mandarins have spoken – from a depth of experience that none on the review panel can match.

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