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The most influential voices outside of government on improving the APS

The panel reviewing the Australian Public Service should reinforce its identity as a “great national institution” and build a stronger general consensus around what it is supposed to do these days, argues a group of Canberra’s most experienced ex-mandarins.

Public servants need to be “brave” in advice to government and ministers should more explicitly welcome that, according to the Centre for Strategy and Governance, a quietly influential collective of independent contractors with one thing in common: lots of experience in the highest levels of government.

The 20 CSG members are mostly ex-secretaries or deputy secretaries and include two past APS commissioners, Lynelle Briggs and Helen Williams, as well as Ian McPhee, the immediate past auditor-general. Some of the newest to join them are recently departed secretaries Lisa Paul and Gordon de Brouwer, who also sits on the APS Review panel chaired by David Thodey.

They hope the panel will not only rethink the APS role in regard to newer challenges — widespread online public debate, the fragmentation of the mainstream, and new demands for responsiveness, transparency and public participation in government — but also build a better understanding of the long-standing ideals that are its foundations, both among the public and people who work in government.

“The APS is more than just an instrument of the Government of the day. It is a significant national institution in its own right. Its roles and responsibilities are not well understood, both in its work for the Government of the day and in its wider contributions to the nation as an institution in its own right. The Review Panel has an opportunity to redress this.”

To that end, they call for an “enduring contemporary statement” of how the APS fits into the system, in a series of terse bullet points produced for an August 1 meeting with the panel, which was published among the submissions.

“The respective roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of Ministers, their offices and the APS are currently ambiguous and certainly not well understood publicly,” the group contends.

“Briefings should be included in orientation for incoming MPs and for new entrants to Ministers’ offices — the latter to be organised by PM’s chief of staff or that of the Minister for the Public Service.”

The ex-mandarins propose all new public servants should also get basic briefings on their role, reinforced by regular discussion of the public interest and public sector values at all levels. They feel this is especially critical as recruitment directly from the private sector becomes more common.

Later, the CSG argues agencies should be obliged to consider that the APS values and code of conduct do not apply to external contractors when they decide whether to outsource functions. When high-level work is done by hired guns, the submission suggests they could be contractually bound to play by public service rules.

While the CSG members think the role of ministerial advisers needs to be clarified, they also think “wider acceptance” of bureaucrats spending time as ministerial advisers should be encouraged.

“This has worked well in the past to the benefit both of Ministers, in getting high level advice and better co-ordination with their departments, [and] of the APS officer (many have later become departmental Secretaries).”

The little-known organisation has no leaders and is neither a consulting firm nor a think-tank. Its members collaborate and confer but take on jobs independently, typically as external reviewers, consultants, statutory officers or board members. It has a four-member advisory board including Kerri Hartland, the current secretary of the federal Department of Jobs and Small Business, and Wendy Craik, who chairs the Climate Change Authority among several roles.

The CSG members want the review to promote the APS as a “great national institution” with its own “separate identity” and strengthen its impartiality. It’s not independent of government, they note, but neither should it be guided by the partisan political interests of whichever party holds office.

They suggest departments and particularly central agencies need to spend more time talking to the opposition during caretaker periods to smooth out changes of government.

And they encourage the panel to find new ideas for more productive Commonwealth-state relations, urging the reviewers to think of the federation as a “marble cake”  rather than a “layer cake” — with each tier of government working together in ways that make sense to citizens, instead of the old-fashioned focus on boundaries that inevitably leads to disputes and cost-shifting.

Classic hits of the public service reform genre

The CSG submission includes many suggestions for meaningful reform, several of which accord with the deeply considered submission from another former APS commissioner and ex-secretary, Andrew Podger, but also reminders of how the system is supposed to work already, which implies a general view that old conventions are cracking.

To fill those cracks, they see a need for more clarity about how our system of government is meant to work — that ministers have a responsibility to consider official adivce and departments are bound to carry out all lawful decisions, for example — and to re-state long-standing principles like the simple concept that good policy outcomes are the result of good policy development processes.

The CSG suggests the benefits of keeping a standard set of about 12 “enduring core departments” would probably outweigh the various costs of chopping and changing all the time.

Its members advise the panel to cast a critical eye over the “enthusiasm for amalgamating and restructuring departments” and explore “appropriate models” of cross-departmental collaboration, which recognise that “conflicting interests need to be resolved by Cabinet” in a democracy.

Starting from the place of the APS as a singular entity of its own within the wider system then moving to culture, structure, capability and the growing impact of technology, the authors have given the panel much to think about. When it adds its final report to the long list of public service management reviews, they hope it will:

  • Finally “tackle the growing ambiguity” around where ministerial advisers fit in, with a definitive “statement of obligations, responsibilities, and legitimate domain” setting out their official role, and a code of conduct or at least a set of values that makes it clear where their duties begin and end.
  • Also “identify and reinforce” the role and responsibilities of a departmental head as a key adviser to the minister, and the accountable authority for their department.
  • Revive an evaluation culture in government and the APS.” Make it clear that “critically reviewing, reporting on and objectively advising on the effectiveness and appropriateness of existing programs” is what public servants do. “Rather than always being on the defensive about mistakes/possible improvements to programs, there needs to be a greater preparedness to ‘tell it as it is’ and for this to be seen (indeed, supported) as a positive thing.”
  • Endorse a bigger role for the public service commissioner as the “institutional head” of the APS, who signs off on all senior executive appointments and is responsible for workforce capability, leadership succession planning, values, “the health and performance of the APS as a national institution” and workforce diversity.
  • Propose a beefed-up appointment process for the commissioner, using a panel of secretaries led by the head of the service, and look at ways to ensure “full due process” in all key statutory appointments.
  • Recommend a requirement for government to explain secretarial appointments to parliament when made without the recommendation of the APS commissioner and secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  • Split the Secretaries Board into two groups that separately deal with the business of the government itself, and the business of managing the bureaucracy.
  • Reinforce the principle that recruitment and promotions should generally be competitive and merit-based  — noting the concept of merit itself might need a broader, updated definition.
  • Consider new centres of excellence for professional skills, perhaps data analytics and procurement.
  • Weigh up the pros and cons of fixed terms for agency heads, and processes for sacking APS leaders.
  • Take a hard look at the staffing cap, and where it leads to illogical use of contractors and consultants. Think about how the interests of external contractors or firms might conflict with the public interest, and whether they can be subject to public service values.
  • Propose organisational arrangements that make mid-level APS jobs be more interesting, like flatter hierarchies with more team-based approaches, and more secondment opportunities.
  • Consider the value of a bi-annual listing of all band 3 senior executives in each portfolio including their skills, experience and development needs, prepared by their portfolio secretary.
  • More regular communication between the public service commissioner and portfolio secretaries on capability gaps, and areas where staff mobility would increase overall effectiveness of the APS, especially at higher levels.
  • Get real about the costs and benefits of technological upgrades, as well as the time and money they require.
  • Recognise that digital transformation usually involves shifting responsibility onto citizens, and many are not “equipped to understand or manage that shift” at the moment.
  • More co-design, to improve letters, automated phone menus and websites, and in designing new programs.
  • Float the idea that keeping customer service staff is actually sometimes more efficient than trying to use self-service where it is not appropriate.
  • Consider what a tell-us-once process would look like for the federal government.
  • Devise new rules to make sure departments retain control of “IT levers” and expertise to be a savvy purchaser.
  • Keep pushing ahead with more data sharing through open data or published data catalogues.

It’s not the good old days

The CSG members see the review as a good opportunity to rethink and reinforce the role of the APS in response to changes in the social and political environment, heightened tribalism and individualism in community attitudes, and the ability for everyone to express those views easily and often through social media.

Compared to the good old days — they don’t say exactly, but presumably just before mobile devices and internet access were ubiquitous — they observe citizens are now less satisfied with government but also more demanding of it.

“In earlier times, the community attitude was that we all have a role to play in helping to improve our circumstances. This has been replaced by a less tolerant community attitude, where everything is ‘their responsibility’ and any thing that does not meet expectations ‘their fault’ (‘their’ being governments and/ or public services).”

In their collective view, “engagement with the community by politicians and support for politicians in the general community has been lost” and the public service experiences this as a disruptive operating environment driven by more demand for immediate responses to sudden issues.

The cabal of bureaucratic freelancers suggests good public policy is now being compromised by the fear of causing short-term pain, which should be balanced against the long-term gains that are often the biggest pay-off from the most important reforms. The trade liberalisation policies of the 1980s and ’90s come to mind.

“Contestability of advice has been a good thing, but the rush to come to quick decisions has cost better outcomes.”

READ MORE ON THE APS REVIEW:
How Andrew Podger reimagines the APS
Martin Stewart-Weeks: what is the point of the public service?
Agency heads allow regulations to wilt: Treasury insiders
Heavyweight operational agencies enter David Thodey’s ring
Back-to-back MoGs induce ‘dysfunction’, warn academics
APS review hears all about the view from the bottom
David Thodey Q&A: burning questions about the review answered

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.