New PM&C staff struggled with conflict of interest after policy mergers

By David Donaldson

Tuesday September 13, 2016

The PM’s department can walk and chew gum, but conflicting new roles put merged staff in the position of either critiquing their own work or setting up a “secret spy unit” to do it for them. A new paper tells staffers’ point of view.

The absorption of several line agency functions into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet under former prime minister Tony Abbott has led to “dysfunctional” practices within these branches and potentially lower quality advice reaching the PM, argues a recently published paper.

Moving such a large delivery portfolio into a central agency is highly unusual and has weakened the system of oversight and competition between central and line agencies that ensures Cabinet can be given different sources of advice by those with frontline knowledge — the line departments — and the central departments, which hold the purse strings and drive government strategy.

“Occasionally central agency intervention is welcome … but we’ve blunted that instrument.”

As a result, some public servants in Indigenous Affairs have been placed in the awkward position of being required to critique their own advice, or the positions held by their minister.

This has potentially damaging effects for decision-making at Prime Ministerial level. “In addition to creating odd, and potentially dysfunctional, work practices we found that the difficulties involved in briefing both to ministers and the Prime Minister was potentially detrimental to the quality and robustness of the policy advice being given to the Prime Minister’s Office,” argue the authors of a paper examining the importance of “boundary spanners”, which was earlier previewed in The Mandarin and has now been published.

The reshuffle saw 800 staff moved as Indigenous Affairs, the Office for Women and the Regulatory Group were rolled into PM&C in 2013. Although the Office for Women has come and gone from PM&C in various forms, “never in the history of the Australian government has a large service-delivery, or line, agency such as Indigenous Affairs been moved into a central agency”, state UNSW Canberra’s Gemma Carey, ANU RegNet’s Melanie Pescud, University of Canberra’s Assistant Professor Fiona Buick and UNSW Canberra’s Eleanor Malbon.

“This change has meant that service-delivery staff across Australia (including remote areas) are now overseen by PM&C, representing a fundamental shift in the role of this central agency,” they say.

The problems resulting from the blurring of the fundamentally different roles of the central and line agencies have been exacerbated by the removal of other oversight mechanisms. The decision to get rid of central agency shadow teams — bureaucrats who follow the work of delivery agencies and provide alternative viewpoints for ministers — has created a “problematic” structure with public servants having to provide different briefings to both their own minister and the prime minister.

“By failing to retain and re-shape these boundary spanning roles, far more dysfunctional practices emerged,” the authors contend.

Swapping hats to prevent contagion

Interviewees — a mix of “legacy” PM&C staff and people from the absorbed portfolios — used the metaphor of “swapping hats” to explain the experience of juggling the different briefing demands of the minister and prime minister:

“If the Minister for Women is bringing forward a submission to Cabinet we prepare that submission, we do the briefing for the minister to speak at Cabinet and then we put [on] our hat as Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to provide briefing to the Prime Minister which may be critical of the Minister for Women’s submission. … sometimes I have to go hang on I’m not looking at this like PM&C.”

With the three offices being moved into PM&C, some believed retaining some form of shadow role would have amounted to a “secret spy unit”, but Carey et al think the original setup should have been “formally re-shaped as an intra-departmental boundary spanning group who performed an important bridging function.” Playing dual roles are potentially detrimental to the careers of the public servants involved, inevitably undermining the impartiality the system relies upon, say the authors:

“This was identified as problematic because our participants recognised that staff with line agency responsibilities could not critique their own work with the same level of independence and impartiality as the former shadow units. Regardless of their ability to ‘swap hats’, ‘prevent contagion’ or ‘keep Chinese walls’, in critiquing the briefs and advice they create to serve the needs of their minister they risk damaging relationships and their career advancement (i.e. by potentially being seen as undermining the aims of the minister).”

It’s not just awkward for the staff — it makes it harder for bad policy to be squashed by a central agency. Said one participant:

“Occasionally central agency intervention is welcome. It’s hard for a line agency to argue with a minister … If they want to do something stupid you’re out of options for how you influence him. PM&C was an influencer, they were a central body but we’ve blunted that instrument … The beauty of the central agencies are that they are nimble … have oversight and can present alternatives. The merger has certainly compromised this in the Indigenous Affairs space.”

The problem was made worse by a lack of training for staff to adapt to the move from a line agency to a central agency, and to handle the dual role. One interviewee noted:

“We didn’t put enough resources into the move at the start. We didn’t realise how big an organisational change it would be … managing changes in culture, the functions, the role. No we didn’t do that well, I don’t think we invested in it.”

In addition, the fact that Indigenous Affairs has offices right across the country, from Melbourne to Thursday Island to Broome, has curbed the opportunity for knowledge transfer between parts of the agency and adjustment to a new organisational culture.

A Senate report published in March found the transfer for programs into PM&C had caused “confusion”, as well as a loss of expertise and relationships built up with contact officers in line departments. Some witnesses at the inquiry were concerned PM&C officers with little or no experience in relevant areas were making decisions on technical and specialist funding.

Integration work expanded understanding

Andrew Tongue
Andrew Tongue

When questioned about the transition to a service delivery agency and the loss of expertise and relationships in line agencies at the Senate hearing, Andrew Tongue, associate secretary, Indigenous Affairs at PM&C responded:

“Is PM&C capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time? Yes, I believe it is.

“We have done a lot of work to integrate the program management and delivery functions of Indigenous Affairs into PM&C. Many people at the most basic level of our corporate services have done placements out on the ground to understand the nature of what it is like to be a government business manager or an Indigenous engagement officer out in remote Australia. Some people working in back function actually used to work in Indigenous Affairs, so we have moved some people around.

“At the level of policy, we are participating in deliberations of policymaking across government. We have a standing item with the heads of department — the secretaries have a standing item on Indigenous Affairs, so we have the opportunity to interact with all the agencies. As far as skills go, we inherited all the people working on Indigenous-specific work in all of the departments. Those people maintain their links to those departments, and we encourage that as part of our work.”

Top image: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet staff met with the Governor-General, then departmental secretary Michael Thawley and associate secretary Andrew Tongue on September 10, 2015.

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