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Marshall’s law: ministers must respect public service independence

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall showed his softer side in his first address to the people of the state’s public sector

At times sharing jokes, answering questions from public servants, and full of praise for their integrity and commitment to the community they serve, the Premier demonstrated he wants the people of the public service to feel valued for their contributions.

The IPAA SA hosted address, and Q&A with Commissioner of Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri, came one week after his government introduced a budget that demands significant efficiency savings from agencies across the board, and six months after a shocked public sector saw four of their top leaders, along with several other senior executives, summarily removed for the offence of being too well-liked by the previous government.

It might look like an attempt at a tonal reset, but Marshall’s message has been consistent: he wants a public service focused on the best policy research and implementation, not caught up in the politics. In other words, a return to many of the traditional conventions of independent public service:

“I would not expect any chief executive to frame advice for a minister through a purely political lens,” Marshall told public servants on Tuesday. “Such advice must remain independent, frank and fearless. The politics must be left to the minister.”

He wants firm boundaries between politics and the public service. There will be no room for staffers who lean on departments for a particular recommendation. The ministers are expected to be truly accountable for their portfolios, particularly where there is evidence of warnings or maladministration ignored.

“I’ve told my ministers they cannot expect to remain in Cabinet if they see nothing, hear nothing and question nothing. Ministers have to be inquisitive, inquiring and challenging. Responsibility ends on the minister’s desk, not at the departmental door.”

Marshall also won’t tolerate any deliberate sidelining of Cabinet. “No more deliberately walking in submissions at the last minute in an attempt to prevent adequate consideration by ministerial colleagues and other agencies.”

A return to more strict Cabinet processes will be beneficial to the public sector’s work, Marshall said, as it improves the quality of decisions and avoids unnecessary costs imposed by poor decision-making.

Listening to the workers

But there were plenty of areas where the Premier felt traditions must be updated for today’s opportunities.

Marshall feared the public sector had become risk intolerant as it hadn’t had a recent government that will was willing to back it. He wants the sector actively proposing policy ideas — even if ultimately a new government can’t be expected to act on all of them.

“We want a state that is creative, coming up with new ideas, but not scared to try things. I think the biggest challenge we face is making sure every [public servant] feels confident that you’ve got a government that is backing you.”

The Marshall family furniture business was a frequent example of how the Premier wanted the public sector to become partners in improving efficiency and productivity — the lesson being listen to those on the coalface: “They’ll know what the answers are for improving productivity and there’s opportunities for new governments to take in that expertise.”

Silos also have to go. Collaboration has been a major theme of the public sector reforms thus far, including cross-portfolio Cabinet committees and more frequent Senior Management Council meetings.

These changes are needed, Marshall says, because the state still has an interstate migration deficit — more kids are leaving the state than coming back — and there are too many opportunities right now in commercial fronts where other states don’t have a firm grip, like the space sector and other emerging manufacturing needs.

Only jobs will arrest that deficit, the Premier notes, so he is urging the state public sector to work collaborative with the private sector to bring jobs to South Australia and keep their young people from leaving. “You can’t force your kids to stay, they’ve got to want to stay.”

While the government’s budget didn’t explicitly highlight a digital transformation agenda, when prompted, Marshall confirmed it was going to be something they’d be talking about a lot more:

“There is a consumer expectation that they’ll have more and more control. While it’s difficult in some areas of government, there are other areas where we do need to be mindful of the digital opportunities, that we can be spending the finite resources we’ve got adding value, not doing things that sometimes frustrate consumers.

“I think [digital transformation] is extraordinarily important, part of an overall wave where more and more control is put in the palm of the consumer.”

Treasurer Rob Lucas is the next minister set to address the SA public sector, on Tuesday next week at an event hosted by IPAA SA in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and PwC.

Photos by John Krüger Photography, courtesy of IPAA SA.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.