The APS’ top public servants come from a range of career backgrounds – including five who’ve worked as ministerial advisers – but both current and former APS commissioners say professionals who’ve worked in politics can enhance the public service.
The APSC is currently working on improving the relationship between public servants and ministerial offices, including through education and training with the APS Academy but also through training for members of parliament staff.
“The relationship between the Australian Public Service and ministers and their offices is, in part, an unfinished piece of business for us,” APS commissioner Peter Woolcott told a senate estimates hearing last month.
“When the relationship works well … that is when you see governance at its best.”
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told The Mandarin it did not keep track of whether SES staff throughout the public service had previously worked in ministerial offices.
“All APS employees are required to follow the APS values, code of conduct and employment principles, which include maintaining impartiality,” a department spokesperson said.
According to the credentials listed on department websites, five of the 14 secretaries currently serving in the Australian Public Service have held roles in ministerial offices.
Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment secretary Andrew MetCalfe was chief of staff to Australian minister for immigration and multicultural affairs in the late 1990s; Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens was a former chief of staff to Peter Costello and to Scott Morrison; and Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty was chief of staff to Malcolm Turnbull.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources secretary David Fredericks was a former staffer to a range of Labor MPs, including Kevin Rudd, while Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development secretary Simon Atkinson was Mathias Cormann’s chief of staff.
Three secretaries have also held roles in the defence forces, while others have served as a hospital chief and taken various pathways through state and federal public services.
Former APS commissioner Andrew Podger, now honorary professor of public policy at ANU’s Crawford School, said a public servant having a previous role in ministerial office brought benefits and hindrances to their careers.
“I think there are certain advantages because you understand the minister’s office and the very tight timing [they’re working under] becomes clearer,” Podger told The Mandarin.
He said some of the “very substantial drawbacks” included the public’s perception around impartiality of a public servant who had worked in politics.
Podger says the role of departmental liaisons should be expanded and the role of ministerial staff reduced.
“It’s important to have public servants in the office and we could make better use of that,” he said.
“They would remain non-partisan, but be able to assist the minister on the spot in the office.”
Woolcott said last year that senior public servants benefited from working with ministers.
“I have to say, when you have seen a senior public servant working up on the hill for a while, it doesn’t matter which party he has worked for, they learn so much from that experience. They are changed in the way they think and the way they work,” Woolcott told a Mandarin Talks.
“We still want to get our best people up into key jobs on the hill as well as part of the process.”