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‘Partisan staff undermine government institutional memory’

The growing divide between public servants and ministerial staff is preventing the retention of governmental corporate memory, say the authors of a book examining the lessons learned by prime ministers’ chiefs of staff.

Increasingly, governments are relying on partisan staffers over the public service — and nowhere more so than in the prime minister’s office.

Under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, up to 70% of ministerial staff were on secondment from the public service, but increasing partisanship means public servants are worried that taking a position in the prime minister’s office will harm their careers.

“The consequences of these changes are obvious,” argue Associate Professor Anne Tiernan and Professor R.A.W. Rhodes in The Gatekeepers. “Both politicians and public servants had less knowledge of how government works, and the amount and quality of expert advice was reduced.”

The knowledge gap can lead to new governments making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Partisans are unwilling to help the other side adjust after a change of government, and a long spell in opposition will mean many of the war stories that remain on the other side will be out of date by the time they find themselves back in the PMO.

Tiernan and Rhodes recall Howard’s decision to sack six departmental secretaries and replace Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Dr Michael Keating:

“Weeks of confusion followed as the office of the prime minister-elect struggled to come to grips with its job and the relationship with PM&C. For example, only after [Hawke chief of staff and then-Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs secretary] Sandy Hollway drew [Howard chief of staff Nicole] Feely’s attention to the PM&C’s capacity to deal with issues, including correspondence, did a relationship between the units that share responsibility for supporting the prime minister begin to develop. There could be no clearer illustration of the importance of institutional memory.”

The book notes that the loss of institutional memory could lead to poorer policy outcomes, arguing:

“There is a widely held view that Australian policy capacity has declined.”

Nonetheless, Tiernan told The Mandarin, “there is no going back from the hybridisation of advice”. “The Prime Minister’s Office and the public service share responsibilities for supporting prime ministers. They need to find ways of working together,” she said.

Tiernan thinks the public service “golden days” of the Hawke era were an outlier to some extent. “There are complex reasons why this has happened, and a good part of it is the operating environment,” Tiernan said.

Public servants should be able to help overcome the lack of institutional memory, she says, “though this can be hard if the government is not engaging the public service”.

To help address this problem, Tiernan and Rhodes recommend a review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, asking:

“Is it an appropriate framework for the hybrid advisory system as it has evolved, or should we consider other models to ensure prime ministers get the mix of responsive and neutral competence that they need to discharge the complex obligations of contemporary leadership?”

Based on comments from Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff David Epstein, the book also suggests considering whether a “politically appointed Senior Executive Service, in preference to staffers, could help to improve links between ministers and the public service”.

They also argue it is worth examining “how rotations into ministerial offices could be reinstated as an essential developmental pathway for officials”.

Anne Tiernan is also creator of a multimedia project called Pest Controller, Shock Absorber on the history of prime ministers’ chiefs of staff.

The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chief of Staff is published by Melbourne University Press

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.