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Roger Wilkins on red tape, ‘mindless proliferation of watchdogs’

The “mindless proliferation of watchdogs and reporting” in government is gumming up the system, according to the outgoing Attorney-General’s Department secretary Roger Wilkins. In an exit interview with The Mandarin, the bow-tied mandarin offered thoughts on innovation, collaboration and the need to cut red tape.

“We should advocate to get rid of a lot of the mindless proliferation of watchdogs and reporting mechanisms that gum up the system and create not only red tape, but a level of risk aversion for public servants. I think it’s now reached a critical point,” he said, days after retiring as the nation’s most senior law-making bureaucrat, arguing it’s often less about real accountability and just “window dressing” out of political compromise:

“I’ve always advocated for a robust ombudsman. An ombudsman deals with maladministration — it should be where these issues are dealt with. The presumption should be that if people have a complaint about the way in which the public service has behaved, go to the ombudsman.

“I don’t know why we need all these other mechanisms. It seems to me that the ombudsman has been a successful mechanism around the world and I’m not sure why we need everything else.”

Australia’s spy and law enforcement agencies are over-burdened with red tape, Wilkins argues, especially given Australia has not seen the kind of activity highlighted by the Snowden case:

“People are spooked by the idea of a spy agency, so they decide that there are all sorts of reasons why they’ve got to report on every little thing. It’s not a bad thing to have someone like the IGIS [Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security] who has an overview. But I’m not sure why we need a whole range of detailed requirements for reporting on almost everything they do. This is substituting legalism for proper accountability.”

Indeed, Wilkins says our idea of security and personal information needs a reality check. As The Mandarin reported last week, he calls the public’s concept of privacy “clunky, old fashioned … and needs to be renovated and brought into the 21st century”.

And then there’s the other red tape tying up all senior bureaucrats …

“For example, when I arrived at Attorney-General’s, ministerial submissions had to go through six levels of clearance before they came to me. And I’m not sure that’s an altogether isolated example.”

Wilkins spent six years in charge at Attorney-General’s HQ down the hill from Parliament House, after a career in public and private spaces. For 14 years he was director-general of the Cabinet Office in New South Wales, before taking a role at financial giant Citi managing climate change and public sector relations. He says one of the lessons learned in government is to “think outwards” and embrace collaboration.

“You can’t protect Australia’s interests in areas like national security without working with the telcos, the large mining corporations and organisations like that. You also need to look outwards to the community on disaster management, for example. You need to get the community to understand what they can do to protect themselves, because increasingly it’s a matter of them becoming more resilient, whether it’s online crime or bushfires or floods.

“The thing for public servants that’s different to what they’re used to is you can’t just pass a law or adopt a policy or issue a fiat if you’re going to solve some of these problems. You’re going to have to be much cleverer in terms of enlisting the support and co-operation of the private sector and other countries, NGOs, other organisations, and citizens — look outwards.”

Federation and fiscal imbalance

Wilkins thinks Prime Minister Tony Abbott has “flagged some interesting directions”, including in federalism and deregulation, and that there is more in the Commission of Audit that could be enacted. “He has an opportunity to do some things in terms of microeconomic reform, which I think is overdue. And we need another Hilmer [National Competition Policy Report] type look at the basic economy.”

The deregulation of universities is a “very important and significant piece of reform”, he adds, “provided you can deal with the issues of equality of opportunity for people who are not so well off”, such as through scholarships and bursaries.

On the issue of reforming the federation, Wilkins says it’s a question of the roles and responsibilities for the Commonwealth, states and territories, and that we should look to other federal systems. Australia needs to consider whether it will move further towards the German style — where “the central federal government makes the rules, decides the policies, and then the states carry them out” — or the Canadian system, where there are clearer demarcations between provincial and national responsibilities, with the states looking after service delivery and the federal government in charge of foreign affairs and security.

“We need a redress, but I don’t think we should overstate the extent to which we can really distinguish between state and Commonwealth functions. There needs to be a level of co-operation. For example, education policy is going to have an impact on the economy, on Australia’s capacity to innovate, and all sorts of macroeconomic implications. So you can’t just pretend that that’s irrelevant to the macroeconomic management of the country, which is a Commonwealth responsibility.

Addressing the vertical fiscal imbalance, he says, would serve to bring greater accountability.

“If they say these are our policies, but we don’t raise any of the money, you don’t have a proper democratic system, where the person responsible for the expenditure is also responsible for raising the money. So that’s not a good thing.”

He cites the demise of state wealth taxes as evidence that we need to look to sustainable income streams for the states.

“The states competed away the wealth tax in various elections. Joh Bjelke-Petersen said he was going to cut it, and Neville Wran followed suit, and before long, nobody had a tax base.

“You need to figure out a system, maybe the GST or a surcharge on income tax, where the states can’t compete away the tax base; where they can piggyback on a Commonwealth tax. In Canada, for example, the provinces put a surcharge on income tax. The income tax base is set by the federal government, but the states can nominate the surcharge they want.”

Wilkins sees globalisation and technology — including transport, communications, and advances in biotechnology — as the two biggest challenges to the work of public servants in the next couple of decades. A lot of government’s capacity to influence has been diminished and is now held by the Australian private sector and citizens, as well as corporations and governments offshore, he says.

“Many of the levers of policy that government might have had several decades ago are no longer available to us. The Federal Reserve rulings or what is happening in China are probably more relevant to the state of the Australian economy than anything that the Reserve Bank or anyone does here.”

More at The Mandarin: Just get used to losing your privacy, former A-G secretary says

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.