The gradual flow of traditional public service work to consultants has eroded skills and expertise within government departments and agencies, ANU’s Professor Glyn Davis says, diminishing the capacity of bureaucrats to properly learn from mistakes for the benefit of future program design.
Paul Ramsay Foundation chief executive and public policy expert Glyn Davis has lamented a trend spanning 40 years that has transformed the strength and capacity of the public service to do its job.
An over reliance on consultants (evident in a federal bill of more than $1.2 billion in a single year for advice from eight consulting firms) as a way to contract service delivery and underfund core policy capabilities has ‘pushed aside’ traditional public service advice, Davis argues. The trend is also attracting would-be graduates away from public service roles and into the consultant firms.
“That is serious money which could be invested in employing policy experts within the Australian Public Service to provide continuity and depth of advice.
“Instead we see a vicious cycle – fewer policy analysts so more need for external advice, more consulting reports so less need for internal policy specialists,” he said.
Delivering the Jim Carlton Integrity Lecture in Melbourne last week, Professor Davis said that while outsourcing government work to the private sector has delivered efficiencies, it has also come at the expense of ‘policy capability and coherence’.
Without the necessary funding or experience to design and execute service delivery themselves, administrations have lost what Davis described as a ‘reliable point of continuity’ and the important opportunity to learn from mistakes.
“There is no reliable way to measure aggregate policy capability, but a sense of loss runs deep within present and past senior public servants,” Davis said.
“[There are] fewer opportunities to ponder messages from failed service delivery and draw these into the next generation of program design,” he added.
These shortcomings have been keenly felt by bureaucrats during Australia’s response phase to the COVID-19, where the critical role of professional administrators has never been more apparent.
“Watching the daily media conferences through lock-down we were reminded why public officials matter, that expertise, experience and judgement bring substance to governance.”
Another concerning trend that Davis acknowledges helps to perpetuate the seemingly symbiotic relationship between consultant firms and government is the way in which public servants transition their careers into these companies. The hires are a boon for consultant groups because it brings across insider knowledge that positions them to continue winning government contracts.
According to Davis, a flashpoint in the shift of the role of mandarins was in December 2019 when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced major changes to the APS (contrary to recommendations of the Thodey report, Our public service our future, that called for fewer departmental restructures, championing the independence of senior public servants and better accountability for ministerial staff). The PM’s changes effectively cut 18 departments to 14 with no consultation among affected agencies and fired five long-serving departmental secretaries.
“The prime minister rejected recommendations about machinery of government, tenure for secretaries, and any change in arrangements for ministerial staff. This would not be necessary […] because the government already ‘expects all ministerial staff to uphold the highest standards of integrity’,” Davis said.
The government response to the Thodey report, entitled Delivering for Australia, came one week after the departmental restructures. In Davis’ view, the response effectively reinforced a command and control dynamic between public servants and their political masters.
“What was once a partnership to govern between ministers and public service experts is now described as a command and control system. The minister and their advisers are firmly in control, and the public service becomes the delivery arm of political goals,” Davis said.
“The assumption of a public service which can endure through changes of government — a public service which acts as a deep well of collective experience and intellectual capital for the nation — is lost in this narrow formulation advanced by the prime minister.”
Professor Davis added that while the pandemic experience has served to remind people of how an effective public service is indispensable, the responsibility now falls to all who believe in the role of the APS in democratic society to advocate for change.
“Identifying the problem is a first step. Arguing, advocating, pointing to choices is next, and that responsibility falls to all of us who care about the Australian Public Service as a core institution of democracy,” he said.
Davis’ remarks were made before an audience convened by the Accountability Round Table and the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies.