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Parky’s coups: how the APS head conjured up two major strikes

Whether Parky’s APS reform coups prove helpful in the long run will depend on those from the public service diaspora who willingly step into the fire — even those whose comments seem ‘tedious’ to its current leaders.

The secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, has scored two major coups recently in terms of Australian Public Service leadership, and we’re not talking about his own Lazarus-like resurrection and appointment to the top job in January, 2016, although that was quite a feat.

Of course, he is not legally titled the head of the APS. That might be too straightforward, given the convolutions of what is sometimes called “covert power”.

His supremacy is derived from two things: his role, under Section 58 of the Public Service Act 1999, in reporting to the Prime Minister on the appointment of other secretaries; and his designation (under Section 64) as chair of the Secretaries Board.

The APS leadership is partly shared with other secretaries and also with the Public Service Commissioner, primarily through the commissioner’s own role in advising on secretarial appointments.

The real boss, of course, is the PM, while parliament has the power to change the legislation – hence, multiple accountabilities that do not apply in the corporate world of overt power.

Parkinson’s timely double

So to Parkinson’s recent coups. The first was his success in recommending to Turnbull that a review into the APS was needed (being chaired by David Thodey and already well underway).

Second was getting the green light for a regular national survey of citizens’ experiences of and satisfaction with the APS – which Parkinson flagged in December and announced last week at the Institute of Public Administration, Australia’s launch of Innovation Month.



Yet, with the short deadline for submissions to the Thodey review approaching on Friday (July 13), Parkinson is evidently anxious to keep any real controversy below the political radar.

What gave him away was an unnecessary, irritated swipe he took at commentaries about the review’s terms of reference, published in what can only have been The Canberra Times.

“It’s not a revisit of Coombs, so all of those former public servants who get to write long and tedious articles in certain local papers, get over yourselves,” he snapped. “It’s actually about the future, not the past.”

“With the short deadline for submissions to the Thodey review approaching on Friday, Parkinson is evidently anxious to keep any real controversy below the political radar.”

Not a helpful thing to say if, at the same time, you are trying to convince your audience (a number of whom were former senior public servants) that you care what they think or that you truly believe the past contains vital lessons for the future.

And not everyone thinks those contributions are long and tedious – or the editors wouldn’t publish them. These days, insights into readership are readily available, thanks to – wait for it – digital transformation.

Shooting the messenger is a popular pastime in Canberra where so many people are genuine experts on any given topic. Equally, one of the joys of the city whose citizens include several generations of public servants is the quality of the discourse on public administration, the equal of any national capital.

The institutional memory and wisdom of the APS is hardly confined to current staff and leaders – a mercy, given how much corporate knowledge has been lost, outsourced or given away, something on which Parkinson himself has clear views.

Why learning from failure is so difficult

But the natural public service reflex is to avoid anything remotely embarrassing to government, especially before an election. It is understandable and part of the culture, but such secrecy is also why “learning from failure” is so difficult.

And not just from failures in what the latest intake of favoured graduates must think is the ancient past, such as the 2009 Home Insulation Program.

In his address, Parkinson was proud to spruik some successful new initiatives on the digital and data analytics front while making it clear they are just the beginning.

But the recent Senate report on digital delivery of government services had its own list that was not quite so glowing:

  • the botched delivery of the 2016 online census;
  • repeated crashes of the ATO website;
  • overruns and delays in the upgrades to the Child Support infrastructure;
  • abandoning the gov.au redesign proposal;
  • halting the start of online NAPLAN testing;
  • abandoning the AAMS apprenticeship platform; and
  • the suspension of the Biometric Identification Services project by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Which brings us back to his announcement of the citizens’ survey, originally, as Parkinson acknowledged, a twinkle in the eye of one of his predecessors, Terry Moran, a decade ago.

“I’ve asked my Department to begin developing the survey in collaboration with relevant agencies, and design a methodology and model that ensures the results are robust and useful to us,” Parkinson said. “Transparency will be important and I’m committed to reporting on major results of the citizen survey.”

But not immediately.

“As I indicated in December last year, results should be published after a lag. This will provide time for us to build a baseline and give agencies time to consider what the data means, rather than jumping in response to what may well be statistical noise.”

A time lag might, conveniently, also take the sting out of some findings, although of course he did not say so.

“The quality of what comes out of both the Thodey review and the citizenship survey will depend on what goes into them.”

It is what happened with the capability reviews (also a result of the Moran blueprint), which were eventually published – too many months after they were concluded, presumably to give ministers cover and agencies a headstart in fixing things or, to be uncharitable, to cover their posteriors.  But at least they did see the light of day, unlike the more recent agency functional and efficiency reviews.

As in the old “life is like a sewer” adage, the quality of what comes out of both the Thodey review and the citizenship survey will depend on what goes into them.

That will largely depend on the courage of current and former public servants and others who care about public administration to speak out.

Whether the head of the APS thinks your views are tedious may not be the measure of how useful they are.


The Review Panel is calling for submissions in response to the Terms of Reference. The closing date for submissions will be 11.59pm AEST Friday 13 July 2018.

The Commonwealth’s Secretaries Board have encouraged APS employees to contribute.

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.