Where are the guardians of Western civilisation when you need them? A riposte to the Prime Minister’s expectation of the public service


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Where are the guardians of Western civilisation when you need them? The Prime Minister’s address to the public service on 19 August should ring alarm bells in every public office in the country, especially those of conservative orientation.

How so? Because he unambiguously asserted that the role of the public service is to implement whatever the government decides. He has just trashed what remains of one of the finest conservative traditions bequeathed by our mother country. For by definition, a bureaucracy confined to implementation is a tool of the government and so by definition is an agent of politics.

The non-political civil service recruited on merit and dedicated to the parallel objectives of serving both the government and the public interest is just one of the various institutions that are loosely described as the “Westminster system” but it is fundamental to a government’s ability to govern effectively.

Queensland’s Public Sector Ethics Act 1994 expresses the dual accountability nicely: public officials are required to “accept and value their duty to be responsive to both the requirements of government and to the public interest” (S.7a). It is impossible to reconcile this traditional approach with the Prime Minister’s recent reformulation.

It is not quite true that the British invented the independent civil service. Indeed, we can see the model at work in biblical times, when the Egyptian Pharaoh recognised the Hebrew Joseph as “discreet and wise” and appointed him as governor over all his country and entrusted him with the royal seal. It is a charming story, chronicled in Genesis 41. It powerfully narrates the desolation that fell upon the country when the rains failed seven years in a row. (Contemporary advocates of minimalist government should take note: the population then relied upon a competent government exercising strategic foresight for sustenance). Pharaoh bedecked Joseph with a linen robe and gold chain — today’s Australian Public Service could only dream of such respect — and in return, Joseph served him and the Egyptian people well.

Later, in China, the Tang Emperor Tai Zong (626-649) embedded the principle of merit-recruitment into China’s civil service through competitive examinations, notionally available even to youths of humble origins. This was 1200 years before the signature Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1854 to the British civil service, aimed at overcoming nepotism, heredity and patronage as a basis for recruitment.

Appointing mates to sinecures is one manifestation of “politicisation” of a civil service. Demanding deference to political manoeuvrings and disparaging independence of thought is another. Patronage in recruitment is intertwined with political responsiveness: one follows the other as surely as poor problem-solving capacity follows both.

The Prime Minister’s speech foreshadows the end of a competent public service able to analyse complex problems and point the way to solutions. It presupposes that ministers come to their positions with sophisticated skills in research and policy analysis. I have written before that these skills are rarely prominent in the selection criteria when party branches preselect candidates.

But even if richly endowed with skills, ministers simply don’t have time to explore the implications of policy proposals. A minister has the equivalent of four full-time jobs: representative of the electorate, influential member of a political party, participant in Cabinet government, and head of their portfolio.

Unburdened by political roles, the policy officer is supposed to be released to attend to the intricacies of contemporary policy-making, including:

  • research — into the files, scholarly literature, solutions in other jurisdictions, the library
  • consultation — with experts, colleagues, civic groups, clients directly affected
  • interdepartmental negotiation — through formalised committees, upwards briefings, field inspections, pre-Cabinet procedures, informal networking
  • multi-lateral dialogue — through conferences, public meetings, deputations, publication of discussion papers…. and so on.

Consider the consequences of portraying the role of the public service as merely that of implementing ministers’ decisions, with limited capacity to brief on causes and consequences. The appeal of the service to bright, analytical minds will fade and recruitment will focus on functionaries with operational experience. Recruitment will skew towards engineers, project managers and imports from a commercial background. Graduates from the humanities and science will miss out and intellectual diversity will decline.

Nonplussed by the complexity of some issues, without a strong interdepartmental apparatus to reconcile knowledge from disparate sources, governments will seize on appealing fixes slipped to them by mates, donors, lobby groups and party enthusiasts or made impossible to ignore by the loudest screechers in the media, to the detriment of the “quiet Australians” who lack access to the insiders’ circles. The ingredients of a “Canberra bubble” are in plain sight.

Public servants who were led to believe they were committing their careers to thoughtful, non-partisan policy analysis will now be told that ministers have many sources of advice. They will be left to languish on short-term contracts, victims of budget cuts and restructures. It’s a short step from announcing that independent policy research is not required to instructing the Department of Finance and Administration that independent policy researchers are not required. Another budget cut, efficiency dividend and a round of redundancies are in the offing.

The flow-on ability of portfolio departments to fund policy research by partners in academe, CSIRO, and civil society declines in tandem as their own discretionary budgets are throttled.

The Prime Minister is, of course, only consolidating not originating a trend. Improved “responsiveness” was a centrepiece of the managerial reforms of the Hawke/Keating era and given tangible form when secretaries were placed on contract. If only the reformers had defined “responsive” in terms of receptivity to diverse sources of knowledge and opinion, and not merely as subservience to political leaders.

A frank and fearless public service is not a sufficient condition of prudent policymaking, but, given the complexity, the power of the commercial media, and the cacophony of ill-informed sources on social media, it is an essential one. No other systemic moderator of ill-informed political mindsets is in sight.

Dr Geoffrey Edwards is an Adjunct Professor, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University.

This article also draws upon Michelle Grattan’s piece in The Conversation

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