Ministerial offices are the 'missing link' of public sector reform

By David Donaldson

October 24, 2016

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking during a Cabinet meeting.

When public administrators consider how to improve governance, they understandably tend to focus on how better to advise and deliver on the decisions of politicians.

But what if the real problem in our governmental system is the politicians themselves? A better public service isn’t much use if ministers ignore its guidance; bad decisions are still bad even if implemented more efficiently.

Professor Anne Tiernan of Griffith University thinks the policy community has spent too long focusing on the impact of the public service’s shortfalls on governance. Instead, the political class is “the missing link of public sector reform”, she argues.

” … a vicious cycle of poorly considered and badly executed policy that erodes trust in the ways that we have seen in the US and Europe.”

“It’s time, I think, to ‘bell the cat’ on the consequences that the relentless blurring of the boundary between politics and administration has on outcomes for Australians,” Tiernan told the 2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia national conference in Adelaide last week, calling on the media, academics, IPAA and public servants themselves to think about how the current situation can be improved.

The “frankly flagrant disregard that some members of the political class show for the traditions and conventions of Westminster governance” is a cause for concern, she says.

“I have watched the selective trashing of traditions and conventions at all levels of Australian government with increasing alarm. Is it willful or ignorant? Hard to say. But I associate it with the rise of career politics, the demise of the parliamentary apprenticeship and a more distant, less respectful relationship between political professionals and career officials,” she explains.

It’s good to the minister

While the role of public servants has been reviewed and adapted constantly, there has been a failure to systematically consider the role of ministers in public administration, says Tiernan.

“Despite having driven successive waves of reform, ministers have been conspicuously absent from reviews and inquiries into the performance of the public sector — despite the leadership role they exercise with support from and ideally in partnership with the public service.”

This is not a new phenomenon — legendary mandarin Arthur Tange said as much in his 1981 Garran Oration, noting that the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration specifically excluded ministers.

“It is high time we focused on the demand-side: the elected side of the ‘governing marriage’,” says Tiernan.

“Despite the often heroic efforts of senior officials to manage the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘puzzles’ created by successive waves of reform (and particularly the ‘political management’ reforms), it is increasingly untenable to ignore the disregard that members of the political class show for ‘the rules of the game’ — the traditions and conventions that guide our system of governance.”

There has been a “persistent failure of the political class to learn from experience” thanks in part to the greatly expanded adviser system and the shallow experience of many before entering politics, says the public admistration expert, reiterating an argument she explored in Fixing the Systema collection of essays released at the start of this year.

Though a common public servant gripe, the concern isn’t just the grumbling of grumpy bureaucrats — it has had a noticeable impact on how the country is run. The widespread use of political advisers where public servants were once more common deprives governments “of institutional memory and the capacity to learn”, Tiernan believes.

“At the same time it enables, or at least does not inhibit, a leader like Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman or Kevin Rudd from developing relatively insular and self-reinforcing networks of advice and support until, inevitably, the party-room revolts.”

Breaking point? 5 cracks in the system

Comparative research conducted by Tiernan and colleague Professor Rod Rhodes across six Australian and international jurisdictions, which will be published next year, has highlighted five common challenges to effective governance:

  1. The problem of fragmentation and coordination, which arguably is more acute at the sub-national level because states are responsible for service delivery.
  2. A tendency to play reactive politics and issue management, which undermines coherence and efforts to focus on key priorities.
  3. The primacy of coping and survival in the calculus of political-administrative elites.
  4. A tendency for a besieged leader to rely on a diminishing circle of close advisers, who by virtue of their close relationship with, and loyalty to, the leader are unable or unwilling to offer alternative advice.
  5. That these courts of advisers no longer regard the public service as central or essential to decision-making.

“Each of these presents a challenge to Westminster norms. None of them is within the province of the public service to influence. Instead, we need to focus on politics — on considering whether and the ways by which the currently self-defeating model might be rehabilitated,” she says.

“If that seems impossible or unlikely, I invite you to contemplate the alternative — a vicious cycle of poorly considered and badly executed policy that erodes trust in the ways that we have seen in the US and Europe.”

Suggesting IPAA could be a good platform to push for consideration of how the principles of public administration could be used to reimagine how politicians and their advisers work, Tiernan noted that “how we work together across the scholarly and practice divides and with commentators and opinion leaders, will be, I think, as critical as it was in an earlier reform era.”

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals