Opinion: rebuilding public sector expertise will rebuild trust in government

By David Smith

June 3, 2020

David Smith, federal member for Bean.

The candid admissions, as reported in the Canberra Times, from former departmental secretary Renee Leon that government is “sick of experts” to the extent that “where to be an expert was almost to be reviled for being part of an elite of people” should be a wakeup call for anyone that is interested in evidence-based decision making and good governance. Ms Leon is well placed to know with a distinguished career in the Australian Public Service and ACT Government Service. Ms Leon also indicated that successive governments had increasingly neglected public service expertise in favour of external views that were “more a testament to the wonders of marketing of consultants than it is to the greatness of the product they produce.”

The devaluing of expertise and the outsourcing of “public sector” advice is not particularly news to me. For more than a decade, while I worked for Professionals Australia, the science and engineering union, I appeared before senate inquiries and met with government agencies to put on the record concerns about the consequences of the erosion of science and engineering expertise across governments at all levels.  Within Defence, a failure to address recurring recommendations to rebuild in-house skills has led to significant cost blowouts and loss of significant materiel capability. Given this, concerns around the future submarines program should not be at all surprising.

Australia’s public services have undergone a dramatic shift in technical, engineering and scientific capacity. Governments once employed about 100,000 engineering professionals three decades ago, yet there are now fewer than 20,000 across the public sector.

Without technical capacity, governments can neither manage nor assess what the private sector sells them — they have effectively become cashed-up, uninformed buyers. Taxpayers are being gamed by an infrastructure hungry, knowledge-poor government that simultaneously pumps out rhetoric about the need for fiscal prudence in hard times.

Last year the Canberra Times reported that the big four consultancies alone nearly tripled their income from the federal government to $2.1 billion since 2013. At the same time as this surge in the use of consultancies there has been a significant increase in the use of labour hire and contracting arrangements to perform “business as usual” roles that are indistinguishable from the work of ongoing public servants. The use of these arrangements for “business as usual” roles undermines the capacity of the Australian government to build policy and program expertise on an ongoing basis.

Look no further than Services Australia for an example. Under the government’s stewardship this agency has admitted to spending close to $800 million on labour hire arrangements over a two-year period. The real-world impacts of these decisions undermine what we value as taxpayers. We know that many problems in the NDIA stemmed from an over reliance on labour hire and that the administration of the National Redress Scheme appears to have been largely staffed by labour hire.

The prevalence of the use of contractors, service providers and the like in the department of defence reached a point where the then secretary, Dennis Richardson, admitted in 2017 that they outnumbered the civilian public service workforce.

This government appears to give little or no consideration to the sensitivity of the work, the fact that such workers are not bound by public service codes of conduct and that having such a workforce opens the possibility of multiple conflicts of interest into every public sector workforce. This practice runs against the intent of the Public Service Act 1999 and arguably even Section 67 of the Constitution. As Paddy Gourley wrote, in the Canberra Times on 2 June, “the doors are being opened wide to corruption and nepotism with serious implications for efficiency, effectiveness and propriety.”

Trying to get an exact handle on the extent of the size of this broad contract workforce borders on the impossible. Last year one of the department of defence’s associate secretaries explained “we don’t calculate the number of contractors…” because supposedly it “didn’t give us the sort of workforce information that helped us manage the workforce.” This absurd answer suggested that the nature of the contract workforce in Defence was so complicated or oblique that it was either too difficult to determine or of such a scale that it was too embarrassing to admit on the record. One is left to wonder about what value for money we are getting or what public interest tests are applied by this government.

It’s true that using contractors and consultants can be useful to provide a “just-in-time” workforce to respond to peaks in workload but they are not the foundations for a healthy government workforce.

Strong government needs to be driven by a skilled workforce motivated at all times by the public good rather than commercial interests. In an increasingly unstable world such a workforce will be critical to meeting public policy challenges as well as rebuilding public trust in government.

David Smith MP is the federal member for Bean.

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