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Top bureaucrats on tenure: are we short changing secretaries?

Full length side view of businessman walking with luggage in office with city view in background

A boss who has stayed too long risks becoming unresponsive and fixed in their ways. Some become dismissive of others’ input; innovation drops off.

This in turn damages morale. In the public sector it can also damage the country.

On the other hand, reshuffling departmental secretaries and agency heads too often erodes capability by preventing the buildup of knowledge and effective leadership.

So how long is the right amount of time for a secretary to be in place?

The times are a-changin’

Unsurprisingly, ideas about secretary tenure have changed through history. The Commonwealth’s public service leaders during the Second World War and subsequent period of rapid post-war growth were not at the mercy of their political masters in the same way departmental secretaries are today.

“There’s a perception you should move people on after five years — that’s the answer to the wrong question.”

There was an expectation they were appointed on a permanent basis. Some of them served quite long stints in the same position — Sir Roland Wilson was Treasury secretary from 1951 to 1966; Sir Allen Brown was in charge of PM&C from 1949 to 1958; Sir Frederick Shedden was head of the Department of Defence from 1937 to 1956.

Going further back, the first director general of the Commonwealth Department of Health, JHL Cumpston, held his position for 24 years, from 1921 to 1945. Australia’s first ever secretary of the Department of the Attorney General, the famous constitutional scholar Sir Robert Garran — who was also the Commonwealth’s first and, briefly, only public servant — was in place for an extraordinary 31 years.

There have been some long runs in recent years, too — Lisa Paul spent 11 years in charge of the four iterations of the Department of Education, while Jane Halton was Health secretary for 10 years before moving to Finance. But it seems they’re becoming less common.

While there isn’t really an observable trend in some departments, Australia’s recent political turmoil has undermined the most senior public service job in the land. The country is now up to its fifth secretary of PM&C since the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007. While Terry Moran and Ian Watt each managed about three years in the job, Abbott appointee Michael Thawley lasted just over a year (the last time this happened was the Whitlam-Fraser period, when two secretaries in a row — John Menadue and Alan Carmody — failed to make it to two years, though in the latter’s case this was because he died in office).

Nights of long and short knives

During the Hawke and Keating era the understanding that secretaries were appointed on a permanent basis began to change. Prime minister Paul Keating removed tenure in 1994, putting secretaries on contracts. New appointees are typically given five year contracts — sometimes three — based on the assumption that moving someone on to a new department at the end of their turn will allow fresh minds to come in.

The shift was cemented by John Howard, who sacked six departmental heads when he came to office in 1996 in what is known — perhaps overdramatically — as the ‘night of the long knives’.

This drive to keep secretaries “responsive” has also led to the charge the public service has been politicised. There is “no doubt” the contracts system has impacted on secretaries, says former mandarin Andrew Podger:

“All secretaries are affected, and they are being dishonest or fooling themselves if they deny it. They will hedge their bets on occasions, limit the number of issues on which to take a strong stand, be less strident, constrain public comments, limit or craft more carefully public documents and accept a muddying of their role and that of political advisers.”

Sackings by then-PM Tony Abbott on the ‘night of the short knives’, in which he eliminated three secretaries and then slowly went about getting rid of Martin Parkinson, were “political”, argues stalwart parliamentary correspondent Michelle Grattan.

Perhaps if some of these experienced heads had been in the room the Abbott government might not have made so many unforced errors.

Too long?

How long is too long to be in the top job?

The question of CEO tenure vexes the private sector — one study says 4.8 years is the optimal length; a Fortune survey found a majority of CEOs think it’s 5-10 years. Perhaps it’s “seven years, plus or minus two”.

There is of course no hard and fast rule, says Helen Silver, secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet from 2008 to 2013. She believes it takes “about a year” to get on top of everything “no matter how good you are”. Less than five years is “a problem”, even if only from the point of view of getting a return on investment, Silver says.

The important thing for any secretary — but something that is more likely to be an issue the longer they’re in place — is “the ability to renew and a willingness to be criticised”, she thinks. Anyone in the job needs to be “open and have enthusiasm”.

Secretaries and CEOs need to ask themselves “how am I going to ensure I don’t get groupthink or become cynical?” Silver explains. “You have to be extraordinarily careful you don’t let that happen. You have to do it consciously.

“Ask yourself, can I be enthusiastic? Can I give 100%? The people working for you can tell if you’re not, and what does that do to an organisation?”

Too short?

Terry Moran, former secretary of both the PM&C (three and a half years) and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (eight years), thinks the real issue is not what the upper limit of secretary tenure should be, but what the minimum amount of time is that he or she should be in the job.

Reforms in recent decades have pushed secretaries towards having to more closely manage the interface between the minister and the department. This has bred a tribe of generalist secretaries, says Moran, who are more heavily steeped in corporate skills than their forebears. The flipside of this is that a new secretary often comes in from outside the department and must familiarise themselves with the minutiae of its work.

It takes most of the standard five year posting — perhaps three or four years — to really master the brief, he argues. A secretary who is good at their job should remain in place a few years longer than that.

“If a secretary is just a sheep dog rounding up public servants, they can do that effectively fairly soon,” says Moran. “But if you believe as I do in a strategic leadership role, if they come in from outside, five years is not long enough.

“There’s still a prevailing perception you should move people on after five years. It’s the answer to the wrong question. It’s misplaced.”

Shifting secretaries around regularly undermines the value of the public service. This was a problem seen by Helen Williams, former Australian public service commissioner and secretary of five departments over 24 years, who also noted that there was a line between being in a position long enough to have valuable experience and networks, and being there so long that one becomes stale:

“I do believe that too frequent change is not good for an organisation. There is a real danger of losing essential expertise. I think that three or four, perhaps five, years is probably a good time in any one position. But often that depends on the particular person and the particular job. Some people go into a position with relevant experience and can hit the ground running. Others require time to develop new skills. But I don’t believe, particularly at secretary level, constant moves are helpful. It takes a while to get across the range of issues dealt with by a portfolio, particularly one where you’ve had no previous experience.”

The shorter time being spent by secretaries in the job is made worse by the trend towards parliamentarians spending briefer amounts of time in particular ministerial portfolios over the past decade.

“If you have secretaries and ministers coming and going very frequently, you’re in danger of things not working very well,” Moran believes.

“Our system of government relies quite heavily on ensuring continuity between one government and the next. The system requires that to work effectively. Over the decades our system has handled this relatively well,” he argues.

“In recent times the system has been adversely affected by suspicion of senior public servants among some political leaders and a growing reluctance to accept challenging or unexpected advice.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.