Is the Australian Public Service competent? Lessons from #CensusFail

By Harley Dennett

August 24, 2016

Two former top mandarins and one of Australia’s leading academics on government weighed into the lessons of #CensusFail in the latest episode of The Policy Shop out this week.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor and former top Queensland public servant Professor Glyn Davis explores whether the Census embarrassment was a one-off or part of a pattern in the public service.

Davis’ guests were former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and now Centre for Policy Development chair Terry Moran, and the founding director of the Melbourne School of Government Professor Helen Sullivan, who will soon take the reins at the Crawford School for Public Policy.

Who got us here, politicians or the mandarins?

Moran puts the blame squarely on the politicians:

“I don’t blame the poor people at the ABS, I blame successive governments which have denied investment in the ABS, and also in this case the foolishness of outsourcing so much of the collection task to the private sector without equipping the ABS to be as strong and informed a client of those companies as it needed to be in a very complex area like IT.

“In the case of the ABS there’s been a gradual shedding of some of the surveys that they’ve done. They’ve contracted. Each government has made a contribution to that. They’re probably not collecting as much as they would wish to and maybe that has accompanied their downsizing of staff numbers over time … not equipped.

“The ABS is absolutely essential to active, competent economic management of Australia. Whatever is wrong, because of the way it’s been treated in the past, has to be put right, otherwise frankly we’re taking risks with the economy, social policy, environmental policy…”

“I wonder if, in the way we employ senior public servants, they’re now less able to be frank and fearless.”

Sullivan found much wisdom in the early defence of the Australian Bureau of Statistics by Productivity Commission chair Peter Harris — that technological advancement is a fact of life and the public service must learn to cope.

However, Sullivan doesn’t buy the clean separation of public servants from decisions they helped inform, or that the ABS lacked the ability to properly handle contracting:

“Governments have been contracting for years. This is not something that is new. We have lots and lots of experience of contracting. It’s not good enough to say it’s because they did not have enough staff or were not trained to do that. This is something that is core to how governments operate. That doesn’t cut it for me.

“The skills and capacities are there. The public service is filled with people who are very smart, very capable, but they have too many things to do. They’re responding constantly to tomorrow’s big thing, which always turns out to be something else by the time you get to tomorrow.”

Both Moran and Sullivan see program evaluation being cut short the APS at present, to the detriment of learning and better policy development. Sullivan says this is partly because there’s too many other things pulling on public servants’ time:

“The one group of people who could effectively intervene are the [departmental] secretaries, because they have the ear of the minister, they are across the evidence. I wonder if, in the way we employ senior public servants, they’re now less able to be frank and fearless.”

Listen to the podcast below:


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