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Verona Burgess: APS leadership churn is looking like carelessness

Department secretaries are dropping like flies. Not only is Gordon de Brouwer leaving Environment in early September, but with the unexpected resignation of Health secretary Martin Bowles (pictured) on Tuesday, the government is looking worse than careless with the leadership group of the Australian Public Service.

If Mike Mrdak, whose term at Infrastructure was extended to the end of the year, leaves also, that would make four departures this calendar year so far, including Dennis Richardson, and three this financial year. Jane Halton’s departure was also less than 12 months ago.

The high turnover of mandarins that used to be only a hallmark of state governments has taken hold in Canberra. In the last decade 33 have resigned, retired or been fired. Whether leaving for career or personal reasons such as health, by the time Bowles is replaced after not quite three years, 51 people will have occupied or be occupying secretaries’ positions over the decade.

Bowles is a big loss. He is an impressive and highly experienced public servant who by all reports has done a first-rate job with Health after a secretarial baptism of fire at Immigration.

He had previous experience in two state administrations and has a genuine understanding of the importance of harnessing data wisely for government transformation.

He was many people’s first pick for Defence to take over from Dennis Richardson (he was a former Defence deputy secretary) – only to be pipped at the post, along with the rest of the short list, when Malcolm Turnbull appointed his own chief of staff, Greg Moriarty, instead.

Now Turnbull has to find a new secretary for two and possibly three important departments, with Health a key portfolio, being one of Labor’s top and most successful areas of policy focus.

The Coalition is in deep trouble and everyone in the APS knows it. A disciplined and focused Labor parliamentary party, its leadership-change rules firmly embedded, is on the road to power, barring unforeseen pitfalls. And that might mean even more secretarial turnover.

Just how the coalition party room could have followed the previous Labor path of corrosive leadership wars has puzzled many. But one former federal secretary says there is no mystery. “The answer is easy,” he remarked last week. “It’s because they are exactly the same type of people and they want exactly the same things.”

Public service pipelines, propagation and preparedness

But if politicians are all cut from the same political cloth, so are public servants cut from a uniquely public-service cloth.

The requirement to uphold the legislated values of impartiality, commitment to service, ethics, respect and accountability has rarely been more sorely tested. A whole generation of public servants has known nothing but a decade of political turmoil. The median length of service of ‘ongoing’ APS staff is now 10 years. Of 137,848 ‘ongoing’ staff, 47% have served for fewer than 10 years.

Already, the deputy secretaries (Senior Executive Band 3) of the 18 departments of state are viewed by some as the real the keepers of the public-service flame – even though with their proliferation in recent years, some in larger agencies are seen by their staff as being operationally more like glorified division heads than genuinely equipped to step into the shoes of the secretary.

The APS has grown overall by 26.3% since 2002, but SES3 numbers have grown by 37.2%. Of 155,771 employees in at June 30 last financial year, 129 were classified as SES3. Of 137,848 ‘ongoing’ staff, 122 were SES3 (74 men and 48 women, or 39%), 110 aged over 50.

Engagements of SES3 staff from outside are extremely low every year, the exception being 2012 when nine were hired. They are mostly promoted from within the service (20 in 2015-16). And they don’t have an unduly high departure rate. Just 14 left in 2015-16, or 10.8%, broadly a public service average. In the same year three out of the tiny cohort of 18 department secretaries (or 16.7%) left; another three left last financial year.

The 18 departments of state have around 87 deputy secretaries between them, with a few others holding the same rank, such as senior heads of mission or government lawyers. At April this year 34 were women, so 39% again, the same percentage as the seven women out of 18 department secretaries. Some have moved around but many have deep experience in their ‘home’ agency. For the SES as a whole, of 2544 officers 976 had served in only one agency for their entire careers; 1077 in two or three agencies and only 491 in four or more, according to 2015-16 figures.

Public servants must, of course, keep calm and carry on. But some are already privately checking out Labor’s signature policies and thinking about how they might be implemented, so that when it comes time to draft the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ books for the next incoming government, the cupboard is not bare.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.