Nothing to fear from ‘business-like’ efficiency: SA public service chief Jim McDowell

By Stephen Easton

Monday September 17, 2018

Jim McDowell

South Australian public servants have nothing to fear from their new chief’s mission to run the bureaucracy more like a business, according to a profile in Adelaide’s main Sunday newspaper.

The article puts a friendly face on former BAE Systems chief executive Jim McDowell, presenting him as a well-connected business leader with strong links to the Liberal Party at federal and state level, who will chase efficiency and fiscal discipline in the public service but leave his own views aside.

With correctional officers in open revolt over prison privatisation and Public Service Association secretary Nev Kitchin promising an industrial “war of attrition” against the government, McDowell avoided pouring more fuel on that particular fire.

The new Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary did not take a strong position on outsourcing and privatisation, telling The Sunday Mail he favoured a case-by-case approach: “If the business case stacks up and you can execute, do it.”

He also expressed the view that public service agencies should never outsource strategic leadership functions; they need to be a “smart customer” which means retaining suitable in-house expertise to manage contracts effectively.

McDowell comes across in the article as a hard-headed businessman with an eye for efficiency, but not a rigid ideological warrior brought in to slash and burn budgets or a stiff, humourless conservative.

It opens with a promise to generally hold back his personal opinions and not to act until considering the evidence, and closes with quotes from friends like University of South Australia vice-chancellor David Lloyd and Liberal Party SA director Sascha Meldrum, who both praise his wit, charm and intellect.

Meldrum said McDowell had a “relaxed, personable” leadership style but she expected he would to bring “a sense of commercial discipline into the public sector” and also forge stronger links between the government and business leaders.

Defence Minister and South Australian MP Christopher Pyne effused about the “spectacular working relationship” the pair had developed around weapons, warships and military gear while McDowell was in his former role, and said the new head of DPC would continue to have a good working relationship with the federal government.

The defence industry is quite valuable to the SA economy and Premier Steven Marshall has previously said one reason he hired McDowell was to help the state attract military-industrial projects, particularly in shipbuilding.

McDowell said he believes public service agencies can become more “efficient and business-like” regardless of key differences to the private sector in terms of purpose and the much higher levels of public accountability for government. He sees policy as a strategy that departments must execute on behalf of government.

South Australia’s top public servant was coy about whether a “business-like” approach is a euphemism for cost-cutting, but his response to the newspaper indicates a belief in the fabled iron law of bureaucracy, suggesting that in his experience, organisations always want to grow for their own sake.

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