Is the appointment of Glyn Davis the beginning of real APS reform?

By Andrew Podger

May 31, 2022

Glyn Davis-Kevin Rudd
Glyn Davis (r) knows how to think very carefully.(AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Glyn Davis’ appointment as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is most welcome.

He may be an ‘outsider’ to the APS but he has experience as head of the Queensland public service, was for many years a scholar in public administration and, as vice-chancellor of two of our top universities, he has managed very large and complex public organisations.

He is also not easily pigeon-holed in terms of his personal political inclinations despite past links with Kevin Rudd (rumoured to include an offer to be Rudd’s PM&C secretary back in 2007).

His chairing of the Ramsay Foundation as well as his leading of Melbourne and Griffith Universities suggest respect for traditional liberalism and gives confidence that he can return the position of PM&C Secretary to non-partisan professionalism.

His standing both nationally and internationally also positions him well to help the Albanese government address the big challenges it faces — the economy, foreign relations, steering our response to climate change, and building consensus for constitutional change to deliver an Indigenous ‘Voice’.

His personal style suggests the ability to marshal the expertise within the APS and to draw on knowledge and skills elsewhere, including in academia.

He was a member of the Thodey review of the APS. Arguably, more than any of the other members, he tried hard to strengthen its evidence base by commissioning a series of research papers from ANZSOG.

He will want to see the recommendations rejected by the Morrison government revisited by the Albanese government, but he will be open to modifications and enhancements recognising the Thodey report’s limitations.

But before he can help the prime minister and the minister for the public service (presumably Katy Gallagher) consider those recommendations he and the APS commissioner will need to advise on other secretary appointments (presuming these are not made this week, before Davis takes up his new role).

That will follow the PM’s announcement of a new Administrative Arrangements Order, expected this week.

Hopefully, the AAO will lead to much better alignment between cabinet ministers and the public service, with a return to the portfolio arrangements that served the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments so well.

If so, there will be several new departments, so that nearly every cabinet minister will have their own portfolio department and every function of government will be represented in the cabinet.

With at least one pending retirement, there seems likely to be at least four more vacant Secretary positions to be filled. With some reshuffling of current Secretaries as well, there is the opportunity for the APS leadership to present a very new face without any politicisation; indeed, with no involuntary terminations.

Davis and APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott need to look very carefully when advising the PM on these appointments, examining possible candidates both within and beyond the APS who can provide the necessary policy and management skills, building constructive relations with ministers and having the leadership qualities necessary for nurturing a stronger, more capable service.

They should not be concerned about perceptions of winners or losers, only who might best handle the respective portfolio challenges and provide the leadership required. These appointments offer a great opportunity to begin a rejuvenation of the APS.

While the government can take early action to remove staff ceilings and rein in spending on consultants, contractors and labour-hire, Davis and the APS commissioner, along with a new Finance Secretary, can subsequently help Senator Gallagher pursue more fundamental changes, drawing, in part, on the Thodey report.

These should include:

  • Increasing the role of the APS Commissioner to be the professional head of the APS, with the PM&C Secretary being the operational head  who marshalls APS resources to meet the demands of the PM, cabinet and the government;
  • Strengthening the application of the merit principle not only for top APS appointments but also for commonwealth boards, agency heads and statutory officers;
  • Reviewing pay and conditions across the APS;
  • Reviewing the funding of administrative expenses to promote efficiency while also improving the level and quality of public services, looking in particular to investments in new technology; and
  • Rethinking the role of the Secretaries Board, shifting it from its current lowest-common-denominator role, which is focused on controlling the service, to genuine collaboration in support of its two main responsibilities: assisting the cabinet (with the PM&C Secretary taking the lead) and exercising stewardship of the APS (led by the APS commissioner).

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