Tom Burton: Canberra clones itself


There is sameness about the top end of the Australian Public Service this week’s mandarin changes continue to propagate.

DNA replicates and so this week did Canberra’s mandarin class. Half the existing federal departments will get new secretaries in a major shuffle of the bureaucratic deck, including two new appointments. One of those, new Infrastructure and Regional Development boss Steven Kennedy, has rightly had “secretary” stamped on his personal file for several years. He is a real loss to PM&C where he has led much of that department’s new work around cities.

But an eyeball of the bios of the 18 portfolio secretaries, reveals a sameness, that says much about the 155,000 strong Australian Public Service.

Without exception, the secretaries are bureaucratic lifers, almost all having spent their career in Canberra, promoted through the senior executive service as high performance individuals. No plumbers or small business owners, nor big corporate, industrial, or NGO experience to be seen.

Treasury boss, John Fraser, worked in Treasury before spending his mid career at investment bank, UBS. Education chief, Michele Bruniges, began life as a teacher rising through the NSW and Canberra education bureaucracy. And the journos remember new Employment secretary, Kerri Hartland, as a Toowoomba rural journo and then in the Canberra press gallery for four years with various News Corp publications. Finance secretary, Rosemary Huxtable, moved west when then Prime Minister, John Howard, downsized the bureaucracy in 1996. And Kennedy started life as a nurse.

But these dalliances aside, every secretary is very much a product of the Canberra system, the Commonwealth government aided and abetted by its local breeding ground, the ACT government. All have worked in plenty of gigs across the wide diaspora of domestic and international functions the federal government spans, but the complete lack of outside blood is startling.

Compare this with NSW, where over a third of the top bureaucracy is now from the non-government world, a five year change program that has injected much needed new thinking and experience into that government.

All are white bread. I say that with no personal disrespect, but to make the point it passes strange that at the elite level of the Australian government there is not an Asian, African, South American, North American to be seen. Nor an indigenous person. This suggests a cultural narrowness that common sense says is not healthy, if you want to be kind. Less kindly, would be to describe it as a tightly self-controlled, in-bred world, cocooned from the broader realities of modern diverse Australia. This is equally true of the political class (us* in the press gallery included) that works in and around Capitol Hill. Anglo-Saxon culture is alive and well with our ruling Canberra elite.

But an educated elite

All the secretaries are products of the post-Whitlam higher education system. All have been products of the top-tier G8 university system, liberal arts alumni mixed with post grad law and economics qualifications. Economics is by far the dominant pedigree, more precisely neo classical economics, taught through conventional post-Keynesian institutions.

The leader of this pack is the Australian National University, which has long acted as finishing school for the top end of the APS.

No bomb throwers at that university. Its impressive schools of strategy, economics and public policy score well on almost any measure. But there is a sameness and comfortable acquiescence with the core mission of the big APS agencies, that feels unhealthy when observed from the grandstand. The ANU is the only university funded directly from the Commonwealth government. In addition ANU through its iron grip on its APS alumni, wins a lot of federal money in the form of research grants, executive programs, and numerous pilots and collaborative institutions. This means there is no incentive to bite the hand that feeds. Indeed the opposite.

And it shows. At times this borders on self congratulation and a dangerous master-of-the universe attitude, that might be warranted if the APS was an exemplar for modern government, but delusional if it isn’t. Sit in on ANU Chancellor Gareth Evan’s annual Crawford School policy confab and you will hear a lot of intelligent people ruminating about “Vatican City” type issues, that feels very distant from the ferment that is deeply disrupting the real world.

There are no dumb-dumbs in this latest secretarial cohort, with lots of first-class honours, masters degrees and PhDs, but other than new Social Services boss Kathryn Campbell, I could not find any technical, engineering, marketing, financial or science credentials. If the next 20 years of the digital revolution is as disruptive as the first 20 then this again reveals a dangerous narrowness — and lack of capability — for the group charged with designing policy, regulation and reform for this era.

Apologies to Game of Thrones fans, but with public administration ripe for automation and an inevitable transformation into an Uber-like mass data algorithm, the APS feels like the citizens of Westeros waiting for the white walkers to come.

In the meantime the work practices have barely changed since the large typing pools of the ’80s gave way to PCs and local networks. Stifling and deeply bureaucratic, there is little incentive for agencies to radically reinvent their work places and practices for the collaborative fast moving world typified in many newer businesses and NGO’s.

All portfolios have created their own innovation pilots and incubator projects, but at heart the big departments of state are largely unchanged since the post-war days of Nugget Coombs. As alumni of this world, do not look for this secretarial group to press the self-destruct button on a Whitehall inspired model that is patently struggling to stay relevant in the rapidly changing, technologically driven, global world.

Credit is due for their success record

To avoid being a complete party spoiler, it should be noted that unlike the corporate world we are near gender balance at the top of the APS, a real credit to Martin Parkinson and his Prime Minister, who have both strongly supported the promotion of women into senior positions. Long overdue. And for the record the APS leadership culture is now thankfully a long way from the some times totalitarian habits of its previous mandarins.

Parkinson et al can rightly claim substantial credit for nearly three decades of endless prosperity, underpinned by the large scale reforms in the ’80s and ’90s. Many of the APS leadership class designed these changes and are as frustrated as everyone about the break down in the reform consensus in which they thrived.

But this new era of uncertainty and disagreement requires very different skill sets and approaches, including a willingness to play in the open world of modern engagement. There are exceptions, but there is a striking naivety at the top end of the APS when it comes to the realities of modern discourse and media. Indeed senior APS SES are actively encouraged to keep away from social media, and with little practical exposure to this wild world, are now largely hostage to citizenry groups armed with powerful megaphones in the form of their 4G smart phones. Donald Trump may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his use of Twitter as an over-the-top communication platform tells you where the game is going.

In contrast the big, slow-moving departments of Canberra feel like dinosaurs of another era, drowning in process, with deadening authorising environments, endless reporting and often meaningless benchmarking. Despite recent attempts to sharpen outcome reporting, accountability remains illusory with the coming round of annual reports almost certainly testimony to another year of performance gobbledygook.

Time will not look favourably on an APS that stands back

The APS leadership is clearly struggling to develop a public administration framework that moves beyond the new managerialism that has driven incremental public sector change over the last decade. This is not a resource issue. Bucket loads of taxpayer cash ($6.5 billion p.a. to be precise) is being thrown at the digitisation agenda, but to date this has not produced a lot of obvious difference other than a bunch of redesigned web sites so they no longer suck on mobile phones (the preferred access device for the massive millennial cohort.)

Talking of which, this new secretarial group are almost all babyboomers or neo-boomers. In management school they teach this type of age-hegemony is symptomatic of a system that rewards time-servers, loyalty and hierarchy. While there are no formal seniority rules in the APS, it seems to be alive and well when looked at from above.

All this might be not so important if the public policy wins were on the board. Sadly this is clearly not the case and across the spectrum of departments there are major challenges. Treasury has gone MIA on the big reform and productivity changes if income growth is not to continue stalling. Energy and climate policy remains pear-shaped, the complexity and ballooning cost of a health system focused on symptoms and not causes is defying all intervention, a serious regional development plan is illusory, and our justice system is costly, slow and derided by the citizens it is meant to serve. The big delivery agencies sit on top of massive legacy IT replacement projects that, like giant octopi, are continuing to define and constrain their core missions.

To extend the metaphor, our security architecture feels more like a Game of Thrones castle with moats and drawbridges, rather than fit for the open internet world. And like the Maginot Line, our defences — domestic and globally — have been outfoxed by far better-equipped cyber criminals and rogue states, leaving much of our critical infrastructure exposed. And we have few clues how to best fund our gold plated governmental system, other than to borrow more from the Chinese — the very same group Canberra’s security chiefs seek to check at every point.

*The author too is a white, anglo, baby boomer, educated at a G8 university, with law and finance/eco majors. 

  • Clementine

    Not surprising really. anyone who leaves the APS to gain experience in academe or industry can pretty much kiss goodbye their APS career – they will treated as a pariah on return – if they can return

  • Peta Colebatch

    what disturbs me is that the SES has become so politicised (and I did argue against the SES for these and governance reasons at the time) that we now have departmental heads and their departments carrying out political bidding which ignores science (climate change and environmental issues) and good governance/legal responsibilities/common humanity (in terms of refugees and border control). So the APS may have degrees and brilliance, but their time will show a disastrous lack of respect for what we have built up in the past, and destruction of Australia’s international reputation as a good citizen of the world.

  • michael

    thanks for your thoughtful piece tom but while there is much justifiable criticism to level at the aps i fear that your comments miss the mark and slip into some easy generalisations concerning the value of diversity and better reflection of the characteristics of broader australian society. wagging a gattuitous, stereotypical finger at a generation of ‘baby boomers’ , while probably increasingly fashionable, is not particularly helpful either.

    colebatch in his comments is much closer to the mark in pointing the finger at politicisation of the aps. i would add the compounding favor of the accompanying running down of professional, independent expertise re4quired for public policy advising in the public interest. too much policy these days driven by ministerial staffers i n ministers offices, vested interests, including industry association led by lobbyists often ex pollies themselves, so called ‘think tanks’ that are merely advocates for a particular ideological point of view, etc. there has been a loss of trust in technical, professional ‘expertise’ in any form, most evident in the political denigration of scientists, let alone economists, engineers,etc.

    i do not accept that the nsw public service with its evident importing of ‘outsiders’ most often people from business that no doubt have their own agendas and values that often are not readily aligned with ‘the public interest’ offers us any kind of model worth emulating.

    the new managerialism, move to contract employment was no advance, in my
    view, from the point of view of the ‘public interest’ in policy
    advising. pm turnbull’s recent reshuffle of the top aps jobs deserves indictment not so much because he has stuck with the system and its inside players but because of the heavy handed, further politicised manner in which he intervened personally, by conducting interviews, rather than entrusting to a more independent, objective process.

    i can agree that the aps needs to move beyond the ‘new managerialism’
    approach that has run its course alongside its stable mat, neo
    liberalism. what the ps needs and what the country deserves if we are to be better served by our depleted public policy capacity, is thorough root and branch review and redesign by a royal commission of enquiry. a new ‘coombes’ royal commission for the aps.

  • Nicholas Gruen

    I commented on a similar echo-chamber phenomenon, citing this article here

    http://clubtroppo.com.au/2017/09/10/meanwhile-in-an-echo-chamber-near-you/