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Bipartisan support for apolitical, merit appointments in NSW

A fortnight out from the New South Wales election, Labor has promised not to purge any public service heads, and to re-examine all proposals for privatisation currently on the table, starting with the award-winning shared services provider ServiceFirst.

Opposition leader Luke Foley says if he wins on March 28, he will run an apolitical, professional public service where mandarins can give robust, impartial advice and have no concerns about their job security. The comments mean there is now bipartisan support in NSW for a return to such principles.

The then-O’Farrell government charged the NSW Public Service Commission with protecting the same principles when it was established in 2011.

Shadow minister for industrial relations, Adam Searle, suggested Labor would avoid making appointments that could be seen as “political” and said that when public servants feel their jobs are not secure, there is a tendency for them to say what they think the ministers want to hear.

“Laws and arrangements that erode security of employment in the public sector run the risk of creating an atmosphere where advice is tailored to give government the answer the public servants think the government wants,” Searle told The Mandarin. “This is bad for public administration.”

Foley pledged on Saturday to keep all current departmental heads in their jobs if elected, a promise which presumably applies to the period immediately after a change of government. He specifically ruled out axing Department of Premier and Cabinet director-general Blair Comley, who was sacked from his job as head of a federal department immediately after the Abbott government took office and hired by premier Mike Baird last September.

Foley’s comments in support of the Westminster tradition of an apolitical public service come after former South Australian departmental boss Rod Hook decried the politicisation of that state’s bureaucracy in a recent article.

Newly elected Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk made a similar pledge to “return to a Westminster-style model that values and supports a permanent public service” at the same time as scrutinising the merit of appointments made by the previous government and embarking on significant machinery-of-government changes.

The NSW Labor leader says he won’t completely ring-fence the state’s bureaucracy from job cuts, and that the consumers of public services should come before the public servants. Foley said he expected to make decisions that would result in job losses in some parts of the government’s workforce and new jobs in other areas.

His cabinet colleague Peter Primrose said Labor would put current plans for privatisation on hold if elected, referring specifically to outsourcing deals currently being hammered out between the government and two IT firms. Reacting to leaked plans to restructure the state’s internal shared services agency ServiceFirst — that would reportedly result in between 10% and 80% of 300 jobs being outsourced to India — Primrose said today the government would consider all options to keep the jobs in-house.

Primrose told The Mandarin Labor was concerned that the “the privatisation push by the Baird Liberal Government might well be irreversible if it wins another term”. He said his party was not “ideologically opposed to outsourcing, nor to services staying in the public sector” but accused the Liberal Party of making decisions based on a “hatred of the public sector”.

Last October, ServiceFirst won the category for federal or state government agencies at the Australian Service Excellence Awards. Its 340 staff provide various office services for almost 40 different agencies. For the past year, the NSW government has been pursuing an outsourcing program which would see many of the agency’s services opened up to contestability, and could transform it into more of a broker than a direct provider of internal government services. According to information about the outsourcing program on the ServiceFirst website:

“The aim is to achieve value for money and to explore whether a different delivery model could lead to better outcomes, reduced costs and increased productivity.”

Concerns have been raised by the NSW Public Service Association that as well as offshoring its members’ jobs, the outsourcing program will lead to sensitive data going overseas and produce negative outcomes for the government. According to a petition from the union:

“Outsourcing carries risks in supply chain delays, language and culture challenges, distance management, loss of intellectual capital.”

Baird’s predecessor Barry O’Farrell created the NSW Public Service Commission and charged it with a mission to sharpen Australia’s largest government workforce that included making sure appointments were only made on merit.

At the time, O’Farrell’s stance on the public service was almost identical to the position outlined by Foley on the weekend. The former premier spoke of getting rid of “the politicisation and scapegoat mentality which has been a feature of the NSW Public Service over the last decade” and said he wanted the state government to have “public servants who can serve successive governments with equal commitment”.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.