Apolitical vs nonpartisan: APS boss has a mind and is going to speak it

By David Donaldson

November 9, 2015

Michael Thawley

The bureaucracy must advocate for reform, says Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley as some political leaders demand less passive public servants. On Friday, he offered his thoughts on issues facing the public service, including its technology skills shortage.

The Australian Public Service’s skills base is underprepared for the digital future, says Thawley on the heels of a report that says most public servants agree.

“It’s very clear that in the [Australian] public service we simply don’t have the digital skills and data analytical skills that will be essential for deciding whether we’re on the right track or not in any of the reform policies that we undertake.”

Speaking at the Economic and Social Outlook Conference in Melbourne on Friday, Thawley added that despite the introduction of the government’s Digital Transformation Office and a new data management program, the Commonwealth’s capability has not yet caught up with the political vision.

In his own department, Thawley has talked about wanting science and technology experts to apply for policy positions.

Canberra’s top public servant has been much more vocal than his predecessors, not just speaking about recruitment matters, he’s also praised the Australian Public Service as “one of the best in the world“. Last week he waxed further on some of his favourite topics:

  1. The bureaucracy must advocate for reform. “The public service act says it’s apolitical — that’s true, but really what’s more important is that it’s nonpartisan,” he argued. “The public service has to be the source of ideas. It has to be very persistent in pushing them. It’s got to be an advocate in many ways, because if it does not advocate reform measures, they’re very unlikely to happen.”
  2. The public service has to be politically realistic. The bureaucracy “can’t afford just to talk like an economics professor to a government,” Thawley says. “Economics professors won’t succeed in getting reforms through. In my view the public service is absolutely essential. It has to be sure its voice is heard, at least within government, and it has to push very hard and keep persisting to the extent that it can.”
  3. Governments are not very good at responding quickly to problems. “We fail to recognise problems early on or we try to ignore them,” he says. “No private company would have gone on with the NBN in the state that it has been. It was clear that it was heading off the rails very early, but we left it for a long time before we started to think about it.”
  4. We still struggle with state and Commonwealth integration of data. Data is of “crucial importance” to checking the success of programs and making informed comparisons between states and with other countries, he added.
  5. Governments need to think about how much regulation we need. “It seems that every day there are more calls for the government to introduce another regulation, and we seem to feel that we need to respond to that,” he argued. “My own view is that we’re tying ourselves up in knots and we do need to think about it.”
  6. Responses to societal problems are too media-driven and inconsistent. “We lurch from one silver bullet to another without really thinking how does it connect to everything else and what are the other ways of dealing with a perceived problem.”
  7. Australia has a high-quality, malleable bureaucracy. The APS is one of the best public services in the world thanks to its people, he says. We also “have an advantage in that we don’t have the problems say that some countries do with organising the public service and getting it to focus on results. For example, we can quickly change the structure of the public service. The government can do that from day to the next — whereas in the United States every congressional committee would fight over each part of the public service.”
  8. We want reform but don’t want to pay for it. “We’re inclined to want results without looking at what the necessary ingredients are. For example we want a lot more infrastructure but we’re very scared to talk about user pays,” he argues.
  9. GST reform is good. “It’s hard to see how else one collects the revenue one needs and one would think that moving to indirect tax from direct tax is a good thing because it incentivises people work more if income tax is reduced,” Thawley says.
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