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Get nimble, get positive, Michael Thawley tells Canberra

Australia’s top bureaucrat has flagged structural changes to government ranks, as the new prime minister demands a more agile public service.

But Michael Thawley, after 10 months as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, insists the Australian public sector is world-class — so quit being so negative about it.

New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is keen to see the APS become more agile and nimble, his departmental secretary told an IPAA ACT conference on Thursday. Responsibility should be delegated to the lowest possible level, especially in service delivery areas. Where work is localised, nothing will get done unless the staff on the ground are given as much authority as possible, and that will also help “retain the enthusiasm” that bright young recruits bring into the APS for decades to come, according to Thawley.

“The hierarchy we deal with is far too inflexible,” he said. “We need to get rid of layers. One way of doing this is to introduce structural changes, and that will take a long time, [or] we can actually do this in a very practical, immediate way.”

How? His department will no longer advertise jobs by level any more, but try to recruit for the skills required instead, and allow advice from lower-level officers to more easily leapfrog the traditional long reporting lines.

“… [the government] wants to know what ideas we have for making changes and how to make them happen.”

Bureaucrats are crucial when leaders and government change, as a repository of knowledge and a bedrock of stability. “We’ve just seen with a change of prime minister and a fairly radical change in the ministry the importance of this,” Thawley said.

The prime minister received three briefings on Wednesday afternoon from Defence chiefs: one about the 2500-odd service personnel around the world; another on counter-terrorism; and one on the “machinery for dealing with people smuggling”. “Within a matter of days a new prime minister is well equipped to know what the system is, what capacity Australia has to deal with these issues, and what the procedures are,” Thawley explained.

The government needs and wants public servants with ideas about how Australia could be better, according to the former Treasury executive, who was seen as a new broom in Canberra.

“It wants to know what we think; it wants to know what ideas we have for making changes and how to make them happen,” he said.

“How to make them happen is crucial, because we’re not just here to write papers, elegant or otherwise — and if they’re cabinet papers, mostly unreadable — we’re actually here to ensure that things change. It’s no use us shrugging our shoulders if the government doesn’t accept our very wise suggestions about how to reform this or the other thing.

“Why did we fail to explain? Why did we fail to convince them to do what we suggested?”

And he reiterated advice once delivered by former PM John Howard: forget about the politics when giving advice; leave that to the politicians.

‘We’re one of the best in the world’

Michael Thawley at yesterday's conference
Michael Thawley at yesterday’s conference

“We’re a nation of whingers and whiners, but let’s just for a moment get out of that familiar mode,” Thawley urged delegates at the conference.

“There’s no question that Australia has one of the best public services in the world. Coming back, what really struck me was the energy amongst the people I immediately fell in with in the prime minister’s department, their professionalism, their dedication and their intellectual capacity.

“The public service we have is second to none in quality and in its attachment to principles. This is true both of policy departments and service providers.”

He suggested that compared to the United States, government transactions like getting a driver’s licence are actually quite simple and easy in Australia. Our system is honest, fair and without any discrimination.

“Try to sort out your mother’s affairs with Centrelink,” Thawley said. “There may be 20 pages of forms, but if you ring up someone, invariably you’ll find someone who’ll be helpful and listen and help you solve your issue.”

He said public servants were in “the most honourable profession” they could be in and played a key role in the political system. “[The public service is] central to the strength of our democracy and it’s probably more important than it’s ever been, at least in recent decades.”

He also urged a sense of perspective on the political instability in Canberra over the past decade.

“We have governments that are either minority or in coalition, which struggle to get things through the Senate. We’re not alone in this; practically every advanced industrial economy is in the same situation. The irony is we used to be critical of New Zealand’s politics and Japan’s politics, but those are two of the few countries who actually really have a solid government which is in control of its parliament and political environment.”

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.