Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Terry Moran has called for a royal commission into the bureaucracy and a shift in responsibilities to deal with the Australian Public Service’s capability issues.
Moran has warned that ongoing problems with the public service’s management of social policy are ‘damaging the public’s respect for the national government’.
“And I suspect that many ministers feel when they turn to the public service in the social policy area, there’s a lack of understanding, a lack of ideas, a lack of any ability to think their way into what it’s like at the local level in service delivery, for which the commonwealth is responsible,” he told the senate inquiry into the capability of the APS on Friday.
He said it was time to have a ‘serious’ royal commission into the APS — like the one led by Herbert Cole ‘Nugget’ Coombs in the 1970s — ‘because parts of it are not fit for purpose’ in the face of Australia’s future challenges.
The 1976 Coombs royal commission into government administration found that the APS is ‘excessively centralised, excessively hierarchical, excessively rigid and inflexible, and excessively resistant to organisational change’.
Echoing this, Moran said service delivery — particularly in regard to social policy — is ‘massively over-centralised’. He has argued that there are many things that are currently managed out of Canberra that would be better handled by state or local government.
He touched on the concept of subsidiarity, where responsibility for service delivery is brought down to the local level.
“The interesting thing about Coombs, then, was that he said what the commonwealth needed to do is to find a way to work at the local level with state and local government to deliver services,” Moran noted.
“And he actually trialled a couple of such centres, which were then, over time, neglected because they didn’t suit the purposes of the relevant commonwealth departments. So that subsidiarity theme is a very old thing, and Canberra doesn’t get it in the public service. And when it pops up, they often don’t support it.”