Coombs 42 years on — looking back at the review that shaped the APS

By David Donaldson

Friday May 25, 2018

H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs presides over the royal commission into government administration. Photo: National Archives of Australia (M2153, 20/1)

It’s striking how similar many of the criticisms made by the Coombs Royal Commission 42 years ago are to those you’d hear today. Yet the review underpinned reforms that transformed the APS from a force for preserving the status quo to what it is today.

With a few exceptions, the Australian Public Service is, “like many other large organisations, excessively centralised, excessively hierarchical, excessively rigid and inflexible, and excessively resistant to organisational change,” reads the report published back in 1976.

While of course much has changed — especially regarding the centralisation of the APS — such comments wouldn’t sound out of place now.

While in the commissioners’ opinion the most frequent criticism of the APS was “based on outright hostility to the size and cost of the public bureaucracy” rather than a question merely of efficiency or effectiveness, they argued the service could undoubtedly do with reform.

The key themes to come out of the report are areas on which subsequent waves of reform have focused: a need for improved responsiveness, increased efficiency and effectiveness, and better engagement with the public. Such ideas were gaining currency around the world already — and in the English-speaking democracies especially — but the commission has provided a touchpoint for reformers applying them to the Australian context.

It revealed many complaints about how the APS worked with regard to human resources and management. The Public Service Board, which controlled much in the way of recruitment and staffing, was seen as overbearing. Public servants thought the APS’s organisational structures were rigid and recruitment and promotion processes were not sufficiently merit-based.

“[The APS’s] defects lie principally in the way in which it is organised, in the impersonal style which has been imposed upon it and in the lack of scope for talent and initiative of those men and women who compose it,” said commission chair Nugget Coombs in a speech.

Always hovering in the background, the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, as it was formally known, has garnered attention recently as the federal government launches another major review of the APS.

“The structure, approach and operations of the APS reflect a framework for public administration shaped largely by the 1974-1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, and refined by subsequent inquiries and reforms,” noted the prime minister in a statement announcing the new review earlier this month.

“It is therefore timely to ask whether the APS’s capability, culture and operating model are suited to harness the opportunities of a transformed Australian economy and society, in an increasingly complex global context.”

Although there have been other reviews before and since Coombs — including the 1983 Reid Review of Commonwealth Administration and Ahead of the Game, chaired by then-head of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran and published in 2010 — none have been so influential in shaping the APS.

The inquiry was unprecedented in many ways

Herbert Cole Coombs — more commonly known as “Nugget” — was the first governor of the Reserve Bank and later chair of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. He was commissioned to head the public administration inquiry by the Whitlam government in 1974, though the process wasn’t completed until after the Whitlam government was ejected from power — a dynamic that may be repeated, given that Turnbull’s inquiry plans to report in 2019 (though perhaps in more constitutionally sound circumstances).

It was a big job that, despite commonly being referred to simply as “Coombs”, reflected the input of many people. The inquiry had broad terms of reference — perhaps too broad — essentially tasked with looking at the organisation, functioning and purpose of the whole APS, as well as its relationships with the parliament, ministers and the community. It took more than 750 submissions and heard 362 witnesses, including two former prime ministers and most department heads. The inquiry also visited several public sector workplaces to speak with staff and spoke to around 600 members of the public from Melbourne to Kununurra about their experiences of dealing with government services.

Despite taking two years to complete and producing a report 435 pages long, around fifty commissioned research papers and four volumes of appendices running to 1700 pages, the review nonetheless had to overlook certain topics — notably including defence, as its unique character would make any examination a significant undertaking on its own.

Turnbull’s APS review will be conducted by four people with backgrounds in big business, a former departmental secretary and a university vice-chancellor with a background in public administration academia. The Coombs commission had quite a different make-up, including nobody from a business or academic public administration background. And unlike the APS review, it included a unionist — PR Munro, secretary of the Council of Commonwealth Public Service Organisations. These were different times.

Apart from Coombs and Munro, commissioners included PH Bailey, deputy secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, a conservative when it came to changes to the public service, the commission’s lone woman Monash Law Professor Enid Campbell, and DR JE Isaac, deputy president of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Around 100 staff and nearly 50 consultants supported the commissioners in this huge undertaking.

And unlike the upcoming review, which has mostly been driven by the court of the mandarins, there was a strong political impetus behind the Coombs commission. Coombs arose out of a strong suspicion of public servants among Labor members at the time. When Whitlam won in 1972, Labor had been out of power 23 long years. As a result, many Labor ministers believed the public service heads at the time were there because of a loyalty to the conservatives — a perception that was not helped by the new, energetic government coming up against the inevitably cautious pace of the bureaucracy used to a more subdued agenda.

On top of this, other parts of the APS were chafing under the influence of the conservative and feared Treasury. The Department of Urban and Regional Development — created by Whitlam and snuffed out almost as quickly by Malcolm Fraser — even tried to set itself up as a rival source of economic policy advice.

Bureaucratic hierarchy managed to reassert itself, however, warding off the potential for any radical findings. The royal commission itself was constituted as a unit within a department, and so was forced to contend with the Public Service Board and Treasury when it needed more staff — slow responses and questions about spending caused frustration for the inquiry at the same time as it was examining the role played by these agencies.

Despite being a royal commission, it was limited in its practical ability to access information, largely relying on the goodwill or self-interest of mandarins who were not always keen to participate. This meant having to play nice despite a mandate to cast a critical eye — the inquiry “tended to equivocate in the face of obstruction”, wrote ANU academics Patrick Weller and RFI Smith in 1977.

Nonetheless, Coombs set out a range of critiques that have informed subsequent changes.

Not quite the revolution it could have been

Most of the report’s recommendations were “progressive and incremental in nature” and have been central to the reform of government in Australia for decades, argues Professor Janine O’Flynn of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government in a paper published by Chile’s CEP public administration project (which is not yet available in English). While the report “received a lukewarm reception at the time of its release”, it has influenced a range of subsequent reforms, including:

  • A statutory expression of the merit principle;
  • Enhancing of equal employment opportunity arrangements and the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation;
  • Special employment arrangements for ministerial staff;
  • A separately defined senior executive category;
  • Statutory expression of rights and obligation for APS employees; and
  • A redefined Public Service Act.

Its influence could even be seen before the report was even released, as departments made changes in a bid to avoid criticism. Treasury’s new emphasis on using forward estimates around this time may have been an attempt to get ahead of any particular approach suggested by the royal commission, for example.

It was around this time that diversity started making inroads into mainstream discourse. Women, Catholics and Aboriginal people were all under-represented, and private school graduates over-represented in leadership, the report noted.

“[Public servants] are selected by processes which give greatest weight to qualities most likely to be possessed by those with privileged social background and privileged educational institutions,” Coombs explained in a speech.

“The composition of the bureaucracy therefore reflects not the structure of Australian society as a whole but that of the already privileged sections of it. The unconscious presumptions which influence its patterns of thought tend therefore to lean heavily towards the preservation of the status quo.”

One of the things that hasn’t changed much in all that time, despite Australia’s population nearly doubling, is the headcount of the APS. Whereas there were around 146,000 Australian Public Service employees in 1975 (plus another 120,000 working for the Postmaster-General’s Department, which was split into Australia Post and Telecom later that year) that number sits at around 150,000 today. Some organisations have been privatised and many jobs that were once in the public sector are now delivered by consultants or private contractors — everything from specialist policy advice to cleaners — but it’s evident that those concerned about the size of government were listened to after all.

Coombs enjoyed engaging with young public servants during the process, especially those working in social policy, but found that older bureaucrats did not display the same vigour.

“Years of involvement in routine and ritualistic processes, an inability to see the outcome of the work done, a sense of isolation from those whose affairs government administration is concerned [with] and a prevailing flatness in the quality of life, official and unofficial, generally has destroyed much of the vitality and concern which no doubt were as evident 20 years ago among them as it now is among their successors,” he said.

“There is I believe something seriously wrong with a system which so stultifies worthwhile human beings.”

Part of this seemed to stem from institutional conservatism — recruiting from outside the public service was still unusual, with the idea of a job for life yet to be eroded by incoming notions of competitiveness, accountability and doing things like the private sector. Ideas about transparency and public engagement were just starting to become influential.

“If government affairs were conducted with greater openness and flexibility, officials would be stimulated and refreshed by more varied influences,” noted the report.

Amusingly, at a time when only one-quarter of APS staff were located in Canberra, the report expressed concern that the service should be decentralised and devolved. Despite periodic decentralisation drives and the recent re-appearance of it on the political agenda, the capital territory now hosts a much larger fraction of the nation’s bureaucrats, at around 38%.

“This isolation — physical, social and organisational — is real and particularly unfortunate because it stimulates the emotional excesses of a ‘we-they’ dichotomy, encouraging among administrators a sense of belonging to a distinctive, privileged and authoritative class of officers of the state, and among the community a sense of frustration and of inability to communicate with officials whom they come to regard as aloof and unpredictable,” says the report.

The commission also got something wrong — it suggested that the use of ministerial advisers, which really started to get going under Whitlam, was a temporary response to Labor’s distrust of the public service after such a long stretch of opposition. Of course, ministerial advisers have only grown in number since that time — though any examination of their role was left out of the terms of reference for the upcoming APS review.

Image source: National Archives of Australia.

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