The new APS review isn’t everything that former mandarins were calling for


Malcolm Turnbull has chosen a panel and terms of reference. But does that predetermine the outcome? Verona Burgess looks at what — and who — didn’t make the cut. 

The Prime Minister’s Friday afternoon announcement of the review of the Australian Public Service is as notable for what is not in it as what is.

While it is bigger in scope than might have been expected in the year before an election – and it’s a credit to the public service leadership that it is happening at all – some key elements are, so far, missing.

To recap, Turnbull’s media release said, “This review will examine the capability, culture and operating model of the APS; make practical recommendations to ensure the APS is ready, over the coming decades, to best serve Australia in: driving innovation and productivity in the economy; delivering high quality policy advice, regulatory oversight, programs and services; tackling complex, multi-sectoral challenges in collaboration with the community, business and citizens; ensuring our domestic, foreign, trade and security interests are coordinated and well managed; improving citizens’ experience of government and delivering fair outcomes for them; and acquiring and maintaining the necessary skills and expertise to fulfil its responsibilities.

“In examining these issues, the review will consider the suitability of the APS’s architecture and governing legislation. It will also consider how the APS monitors and measures performance and how it ensures the transparent and most effective use of taxpayers’ money in delivering outcomes.”

The review would focus on all departments of state and entities that engage staff under the Public Service Act 1999; parliamentary departments are not within its scope.

So, what’s missing in action?

First and most obvious is that confining it to agencies staffed under the Act means it does not cover the full gamut of federal administration. Bodies such as the CSIRO, ASIO, the ABC, APRA, ASIC and others are not included. Nor is the Australian Defence Force, although that might have been a bridge too far.

Second, there is no mention of the crucial interface between the public service, ministers and their offices. Or, as a former Public Service Commissioner, Andrew Podger, put it last week in The Canberra Times, “The relationship between politics and administration.”

Podger had, in addition to other Coombs-style terms of reference, suggested examining three sets of relationships: between politics and administration; between administration and the public; and internal relationships within Australian government administration.

The first would include the roles of ministers and agency heads and related issues such as appointment arrangements, tenure and more; the roles of ministerial staff and public servants; the relationship between public servants and the Parliament (and the role of the Australian parliamentary service) and the degree of independence required for different functions; and the organisational structure best suited to different functions.

Podger’s suggestions were good ones, although a fourth, “the relationship between administration and business” might have rounded them out.

Another missing element is a full-frontal re-examination of the public service values, employment principles and code of conduct. They might be swept into the “suitability” of the 1999 legislation, but they deserve more.

Federal-state relations don’t get a specific mention either.

Former Defence secretary Dennis Richardson, who first floated the need for a new Coombs-style review on July 18 last year, had focused on the importance of revisiting the philosophical foundations of the public service. But the terms of reference do not go there, unfortunately.

Then there is the question of the review’s powers. What are they? What are its protections? Can it compel evidence? Will witnesses be indemnified? Will all submissions be published? Will there be public hearings and if so, will they all be? Will there be a counsel-assisting type role as in royal commissions? What will happen if wrongdoing is exposed? What will it cost?

A panel of balances

As for the panel, there are few surprises that a Coalition government would stack it with the private sector, but it is disappointing that former Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer – a good choice – is the only former APS mandarin on it.

Many people would have preferred a retired High Court judge to lead the review. However, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound for the chair of CSIRO and former CEO of Telstra David Thodey, who will chair it – he, with Elizabeth Alexander, is already heading the review of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act.

Thodey appeared on a panel at the ACT Division of the Institute of Public Administration Australia on March 22, where he observed in passing, to some people’s amusement, “I don’t do policy”.

It makes sense to include a customer-service digital expert, in this case ANZ’s Maile Carnegie. However, the Chancellor of the University of Sydney and chair of Thales, Belinda Hutchinson, has had a diverse career that does not include working inside the APS; ditto Alison Watkins, the Group Managing Director of Coca Cola Amatil (think vending machines, shop fridges and your dentist’s direst warnings).

Watkins is also a non-executive director of both the Business Council of Australia and the Centre for Independent Studies but there is no corresponding member of the union movement on the panel.

Perhaps Turnbull thought the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, would balance things up because he is a former head of the Queensland public service and he co-chaired Kevin Rudd’s 20-20 Summit that led to the 2009 Moran review of the public service.

The review will report in the first half of 2019.  It had better get its skates on if it is not to be swallowed by history.

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