Geoff Gallop: putting the theory of public service into practice

The public sector is a complex beast, the former WA premier argues. Know the theory, understand the history, and then be pragmatic about delivering for the community.

All over the globe governments are struggling with their public sectors. In their search for a better way they look to other countries and other times for examples of best practice. Sometimes they find something that will work but all too often the different context and circumstances mean the results are mixed — and often negative.

Is there one model of the public sector and system of public management that works best? We now know a good deal about what does and doesn’t work, but the way that evidence is marshalled and applied within any one country, one sector or one activity will be the key to success or failure. In other words, the question of public sector reform should be treated as a strategic rather than just an ideological question.

I was privileged to be an elected member of parliament for 20 years and in that time was a minister for three, opposition leader for four and premier for five. Above all else I have learnt two things about the public service and the public sector it manages. Firstly, that its value should never be underestimated or devalued. Indeed, having capable and committed public servants is part of what is needed to produce good government; that is to say government which serves the public interest as opposed to particular and sectional interests and which is capable of dealing with the many crises — natural and man-made — that are presented to it. It might be the tackling of a fire or a flood or it might be the drafting of legislation in a complex area of policy or indeed the delivery of services to marginalised and vulnerable people in the community — whatever the task we need it to be performed efficiently, effectively and ethically. This applies whether your politics is left, right or centre.

Secondly, that we cannot make sense of the public sector if we abstract it from the wider political context in which it operates. The public sector sits in relation to the elected government it serves and the community within which it delivers its many functions. Indeed, it may be the quality of these relationships between elected and non-elected officials and the government and non-government sectors rather than the qualifications and technical expertise of the public service that determines whether or not the sector is delivering in an effective manner. Both the political class and the bureaucratic class need to understand this; the first because they may be tempted to over-reach and the second because they need authority for what they do.

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