Peter Shergold: modern mandarins, fearful and politicised

Have senior bureaucrats become politicised? And what do new demands of ministers and media mean for the way they function? The nation’s former top public servant muses.

Peter Shergold

Peter Shergold

Mandarins must wield a degree of independence (in providing advice and implementing policy), but must also serve, with equal commitment, successive elected governments. It’s a question of balance. Some mandarins have been “highly critical of the excessive shifts in the 1990s and early 2000s … towards responsiveness and away from those values that emphasise independence”, as Andrew Podger has argued. Others, such as myself, continue to believe that the advice we provided in confidence remained professional, impartial and — as necessary — robust.

In Canberra, this large question is often narrowed to a debate on the changes introduced to secretaries: dispensing with the term “permanent head” in 1984; the introduction of fixed-term contracts in 1994; and the subsequent confirmation that contracts could be terminated when they had lost the confidence of government. Partly as a consequence, the term of a departmental secretary is likely to be shorter than in the past, and more at risk; compared to elsewhere in the Westminster world, they now retain their positions at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.

Does that make mandarins more cautious or respective to political direction? Does it cause them to be fearful and compliant? Critics, particularly in academia and the media, believe so. In contrast, I have argued that the ability to provide frank and fearless advice is more a matter of personal conviction and courage than contract and remuneration.

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  • Andrea Grosvenor

    Departmental Secretaries are generally highly experienced, thoughtful and well-trained people who are capable of determining the appropriate balance between implementing the elected government’s agenda and offering frank and fearless advice. However, there is now a large cohort of SES officers who have never had the training, opportunity or encouragement to think or act independently. There is a real lack of imagination and courage pervading the middle and senior leadership ranks. I suggest it is the responsibility of agency heads to ensure their staff are educated in public policy, to encourage and allow original thought and innovation, and to lead by example. Public service will be the richer if all participants believe they have a responsibility to contribute according to the best of their talents and not just mindlessly jump to the latest orders coming from the Minister’s office.