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

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.

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