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Professor Andrew Podger AO
10 September 2019
Unfortunately the APS Review’s final report is not yet
public. I am not sure, however, that my lecture today would have been much
different had the report been available to me.
I will focus today on the APS as an institution and its
critical constitutional role. I will then present my own reflections on how it
has evolved over the last 50 years, the lessons learned and the state of the
service today, and the challenges it faces over the next decade or so.
I will highlight the measures I believe are essential to
protect and nurture its role and capability, in doing so commenting on the
directions the APS Review foreshadowed in its interim report, and some of the
comments made by the Prime Minister since the election.
The constitutional role of the APS
The first object of the Australian Public Service, set out
in Section 3 of the Public Service Act 1999 (PSA), is: ‘to
establish an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in
serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public’.
Few commentators of the recent High Court decision in the
Banerji case mentioned the emphasis given to this object of the APS in all the
judgments, nor the emphasis given to the constitutionality of the APS. Justices
Keifel, Keane and Nettle state in their joint judgement:
There can be no doubt that the maintenance and protection of
an apolitical and professional public service is a significant purpose
consistent with the system of representative and responsible government
mandated by the Constitution.
Justice Gageler goes into more detail about the relevant
sections of the Constitution, including section 61, section 63, section 64 and section
67: ‘... like its predecessors, the PSA “serves public and constitutional
purposes as well as those of employment” ...’
Justice Edelman argues:
... the law (the PSA’s constraints on freedom of political
communication) is reasonably necessary and adequately balanced given the place
of its legitimate policy purpose in Australia's constitutional tradition and
the importance of that purpose to responsible government.
Later he says:
The reason for the existence of values of being apolitical,
impartial and professional is to enable a trusted relationship between, on the
one hand, the public service and, on the other hand, Parliament, the executive
government, which implements its statutes and policies, and the public, who are
subject to the administration of those statutes.
The Justices also refer to the long history of the APS, Gageler
The objects of the PSA and the manner in which the PSA
regulates the APS continue a long tradition of professionalism and political
neutrality of officers within departments of State for the administration of
which Ministers of State are constitutionally responsible and politically
accountable. The tradition can be traced through the predecessors of the APS to
a process of public sector reform which began in the second half of the 19th
century following recommendations in the Report on the Organization of the
Civil Service in the United Kingdom for an end to ministerial patronage and for
the creation of a permanent professional public service based on competitive
recruitment and promotion purposes, which were taken up and implemented by
legislation after the advent of responsible government in the Australian
colonies and which contributed to its development. The ethos which emerged,
which has prevailed throughout the history of the Commonwealth, has been that
of “an apolitical public service which is skilled and efficient in serving the
As an aside, let me also say that the High Court judgment
does not add any new constraint on public servants’ freedom of speech. Indeed,
there are references to the liberalisation in the 1970s and 1980s of earlier
constraints, and Justice Edelman in particular usefully identifies six factors
that might be taken into account by APS managers in applying the constraint
that remains in the PSA. There are no references in the judgments to the
severity or otherwise of the penalty imposed on Ms Banerji but, if Justice
Edelman’s factors had been applied, quite possibly a lesser penalty may have
been appropriate and she might have been given opportunity to cease her blog
and/or transfer to a different department. I hope the APS Commission considers
a revision of its guidelines to take into account Justice Edelman's suggestion.
The careful references in the High Court judgement to the
constitutional role of the APS are an important reminder that protecting and
nurturing the APS must not be seen as a policy priority for one side of
politics or the other, but as central to the preservation of responsible
government and the rule of law and hence of critical importance to the
Parliament and the public.
Nor is this related only to Australia's traditions and our
Westminster institutional arrangements going back to the Northcote Trevelyan
report to which Justice Gageler referred. A professional civil service separate
from politics is an essential element of any democracy, albeit the detailed
arrangements vary widely. Woodrow Wilson perhaps argued the case more
eloquently than Northcote Trevelyan in his 1886 lecture, ‘The Study of
Administration’. Wilson argued that the democratic principle of policy
alignment with public opinion drives the need and the capacity to separate
politics and administration:
... the general laws ... are obviously outside of and above
... steady, hearty allegiance to the policy of the government
they serve will constitute good behaviour. That policy ... will not be the
creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen whose responsibility to
public opinion will be direct and inevitable.
... (the whole bureaucracy should be) removed from the common
political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file.
While the US has never fully adopted the Wilson view, it
does rely on an apolitical, impartial and professional civil service, both
federally and in each state, as do other democratic countries, each in its own
particular way. There are differences in the degree of separation of
administration from politics, and a perennial debate in each country about the
balance between responsiveness to the elected government and ‘speaking truth to
The separation of politics from administration is not just a
matter of avoiding ministerial patronage and the risks of nepotism and fraud,
the focus of the Northcote Trevelyan Report. It also goes to efficient and
effective management of government policies and programs, to the rule of law,
protecting the public from the tyranny of the majority and ensuring impartial
service delivery for all citizens.
It is no accident that the first PSA object refers to
‘serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public’. The APS is
certainly part of the executive arm, and subject to the lawful directions of
ministers to whom it owes loyalty. But it has a degree of independence as
demonstrated by the APS values of being apolitical, impartial and professional.
The laws it is subject to go well beyond the PSA and financial management
legislation, including the panoply of administrative law enacted in the 1970s
and early 1980s. And the APS serves the Parliament and the Australian public as
well as the Government.
In serving the Government, the APS has two key roles:
implementing government policies and programs and providing policy advice. This
is made clear in section 57 of the PSA which sets out the roles of
secretaries, the first two roles being:
a) principal official policy adviser
to the agency minister and
ensuring delivery of government programs and collaboration to achieve outcomes
within the Agency Minister's portfolio and, with other secretaries, across the
whole of Government.
Developments in public
administration over the last 50 years
Like most OECD countries, Australia's approach to public
administration until the 1970s followed Weberian lines with hierarchical
structures, formal rules and processes, and an emphasis on particular functions
and the expertise needed to manage them. Proper decision-making not only
ensured consistency and reliability, but was also seen to be efficient.
Government administration was largely self-sufficient, delivering public
services itself and providing its own support services. It relied heavily on
training and developing its own employees and these having lifelong careers in
government administration. It was dominated, at least at middle and senior
levels, by men.
While it would be wrong to say that there were not
significant developments prior to the 1970s, most scholars describe the
approach until the 1970s as ‘traditional public administration’. Simply
describing what the Commonwealth Public Service was doing in 1970, and what it
looked like, demonstrates what a different world it was. The Postmaster General
(PMG) employed the vast majority of public servants; others worked in defence
factories and in veterans hospitals; there were large numbers of apprentices,
and there was a day labour force involved in construction and property
services. Three quarters of the workforce were at levels now classified as APS
1 and APS 2 which encompasses about five per cent of the APS today. Policy
advising was undertaken by a small fraction of the public service. Sir
Frederick Wheeler in the 1960s began the first serious moves to recruit
graduates, but they still represented a small minority of recruits.
It was against this background that the Coombs Royal
Commission into Australian Government Administration reported in 1976. It was a
massive review culminating in a final report with four supplementary volumes,
following publication of a wide range of major submissions and working papers
from various taskforces which informed consultations by Coombs and his fellow commissioners.
It concluded that ‘Australian government administration now needs significant
adaptation to deal responsibly, effectively and efficiently with the tasks
which confront it.’
Broadly, Coombs advocated three significant changes to the
traditional model of public administration formerly used:
increase responsiveness to the elected government, reducing the independence of
the public service
increase efficiency in government administration by a greater focus on program objectives
and results achieved and
increase the representativeness of the public service and the openness of its
interactions with the public.
Together, these changes would make the public service more
outward-looking—more responsive to the government of the day, more conscious of
its responsibility to the public and more representative of the people it
serves. It would be less anonymous and less inward-looking, and more efficient.
In many respects, the Coombs Report was a watershed in the
shift away from traditional public administration as conducted in Australia,
but it was by no means the only driver as the shift in the 1980s and 1990s to
what is now known internationally as ‘new public management’, or NPM, was an
Important to this shift were the economic challenges of the
1970s. These challenges were perceived by many economists at the time as
exacerbated by the size and inflexibility of government activity. In Australia,
it is possible to discern two distinct but closely related reform agendas. The
first was a broad economic reform agenda aimed to make Australia more
competitive internationally, to increase productivity and thereby to increase
the economic and social wellbeing of Australians. This agenda included the
floating of the dollar, the progressive reduction in tariff protection, the
progressive liberalising of the labour market and a macro-economic policy that
set a cap on the size of government in terms of aggregate revenues and
expenses. The second focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government
administration within the macro-economic constraints that had been set.
NPM was involved in a number of elements that were widely
adopted across OECD countries, if applied differently and at different times in
each jurisdiction. Some, but not all, were encouraged by Coombs:
for results’ involving articulating program objectives, setting performance
targets, reporting on results and using systematic evaluation
of administrative authority, particularly with respect to the use of financial
and human resources within strict financial caps
- use of market type
approaches and private business management techniques, such as:
- contracting out, commercialisation
- corporate planning and
accrual accounting and
- customer focus and service
- firmer political
oversight, including through:
- reduced security of tenure
of senior civil servants and
- providing partisan staff
support for ministers.
There were demonstrable gains from Australia's NPM reforms,
partly because our approach was pragmatic, not ideological, and involved steady
This is not to deny the validity of some criticisms of NPM.
The risk from widespread use of the private sector to longstanding public
sector values and ethos proved real, as did the risk of hollowing out expertise
in the public service. Concerns about ‘politicisation’ increased in the 1990s
in Australia with the loss of tenure for secretaries under the Keating
Government and the sacking of secretaries by Prime Minister Howard.
There were also concerns within the Government and the
public service by the early 2000s that NPM relied too heavily on vertical
management: more emphasis was needed on horizontal management and whole-of-government
approaches to address complex issues. In addition, it was recognised that the
contracting arrangements focused too heavily on competition and not enough on
collaboration. Also, while treating the public as customers under NPM did lead
to improvement in some service quality and effectiveness, it tended to
underplay the rights and responsibilities of the public as citizens.
Reflections such as these were occurring in many countries
which had adopted NPM measures. They did not lead to rejection of NPM, but to
some important modifications now widely described as ‘new public governance’ or
NPG. Key attributes of NPG include:
- more joined-up government,
- some winding back of
devolution to promote cross-agency collaboration and interaction
emphasis on effectiveness and not just efficiency including, through
collaboration—‘co-production’ and ‘co-design’—and an increasing role for
- wider networking beyond
and outwards’ accountability to communities and citizens, complementing
traditional ‘upwards’ accountability through the legislature.
Aspects of these have been entrenched in amendments to the
PSA and in the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013
(PGPA Act), with their clear references to collaboration and the
strengthening of the role of the APS Commission.
While NPG has delivered improvements, some downsides are
also apparent, and many challenges remain. The fact is that citizens-centred
services are difficult to provide and manage: there are major IT infrastructure
challenges involved and problems in designing appropriate financial controls
without upsetting expectations or unduly limiting choices and personal
tailoring of services. Whole-of-government coordination can sometimes be code
for political control ensuring everyone ‘sings from the same song sheet’, and
can promote ‘groupthink’, constraining robust expert debate. Networking may
also further blur boundaries, diluting appreciation of the unique role of the
public service and the importance of APS values. Also, it is evident that
unscrambling the egg of devolution of public service pay and conditions is
proving to be extremely difficult.
While there was discussion about excessive political
control, measures taken by the Rudd Government in 2008 and reflected in
subsequent amendments to the PSA seem to have had little effect, more
secretaries being dismissed in 2013 and the power of ministerial staff
continuing to increase.
Lessons from this history
First, aspects of traditional public administration remain
critical, particularly its emphasis on the merit principle and due process in
the management of public programs to ensure fairness and proper use of
resources. But the APS was too inward looking and independent, and too process
Second, for the most part, NPM delivered significant gains
in Australia: greater efficiency, making the APS more outward looking and
focusing much more on results. The pejorative term, ‘neoliberalism’, is greatly
misused. NPM nonetheless had downsides and there was overreach.
Third, some of these downsides have been successfully
addressed through NPG developments in the last 20 years, particularly through
greater collaboration. Others however have yet to be addressed, particularly
the loss of capability, and some have in fact been exacerbated, particularly
the focus on political control.
In its Interim Report, the APS Review takes a rather
complacent view, stating:
... international comparisons paint a positive picture of the
... (it is) proud to recognise the achievements and international
standing of the APS ...
... we must also understand where and why it is not making its
This conclusion mirrors the 2010 Moran Report’s view that
‘the APS is not broken ...but it could perform better’.
My view is less sanguine. The problems identified in 2010
have not been resolved. Capability deficits remain and seem likely to have
gotten worse. Reliance on consultants and contractors has increased with highly
doubtful (at best) gains in value-for-money terms and continued negative impact
on APS capabilities. Capacity for informed purchasing by the APS is also almost
certain to have reduced further. And the blurring of boundaries has not been
addressed. APS funding arrangements have not been fixed despite repeated expert
advice for nearly 20 years about the inappropriateness of crude efficiency
dividends and, likewise, remuneration policy remains a mess.
Most importantly, in my view, problems arising from the
interaction of politics and administration have worsened over the last 25 years
under both sides of politics, raising questions about how well the APS today is
able to meet its constitutional responsibilities as so recently re-affirmed by
the High Court. Balancing responsiveness to the elected government and
exercising the independence inherent in being professional, impartial and
non-partisan, in serving the public and the Parliament as well as the
Government, is not new: it is a perennial challenge. But the ‘thickening’ of
the interaction between the APS and ministers, coupled with the professionalisation
of politics, has changed the relationship from a partnership to one often more
akin to ‘master-servant’, where the ‘master’ is not just the minister but also
the minister’s chief of staff and other advisers.
The incentives for senior public servants have changed, and
it should be no surprise that this has affected behaviour and capability.
Controlling the public service to minimise political risk is too often given
more weight than taking advantage of the intellectual capacity and
administrative experience the APS has to offer. Failure to use that capacity
and experience only adds to the capacities’ decline. In response, some senior public
servants have tried to please their ‘masters’ in other ways, to demonstrate
responsiveness by devoting resources to more tactical and immediate support
than to strategic and longer term advice. To use Peter Aucoin’s term, they
exercise ‘promiscuous partisanship’—a willingness to go too far in supporting
the elected government’s political agenda and then switching when the
government changes, going too far again in supporting the new government’s
political agenda. They presumably think this demonstrates non-partisanship, but
it really just prostitutes the professional apolitical role of the APS,
blurring the line between the role of the APS and that of ministerial staff and
undermining the confidence of the Parliament and the public in the APS as an
Am I exaggerating, pining for a past that never really
existed? I don't think so.
Just last month, Paul Tilley released his history of the
Treasury, tracing the waxing and waning of its capacity and influence since
Federation. He offers highly convincing evidence of the waning of recent years.
One example stands out. Tilley was involved in providing a 90-page brief to the
Treasurer. It had 40 different options for changing tax arrangements, some of
which he said were ‘ridiculous’. The briefing did not include any policy advice
from Treasury as they were told that advice to the Treasurer would be provided
by the office. The Treasury had become a source of information only, not
No department I worked in during my career would have failed
to indicate its expert view of the policy options available. Not all ministers
appreciated the advice at the time, but almost every one valued the fact that
professional advice was provided along with supporting evidence— so long as
there was commitment to implement decisions whether following the advice or
As I watched the political pressures on the APS increase
over the 1990s and 2000s, I thought Treasury was the most successful department
in— appropriately and professionally—resisting them. Paul Tilley's book shows
that even Treasury has had to adjust, with the result that its capability as
well as its influence has decreased.
Where capability has most clearly been maintained and
properly nurtured is in statutory authorities like the Reserve Bank, the ACCC
and the Productivity Commission. This demonstrates the importance of a degree
of independence. But even some authorities seem to have lost their professional
independence and courage.
Justice Kenneth Haynes recently suggested that the
increasing use of Royal Commissions indicated that other government structures—legislative,
executive or judicial—are not working as they should. He highlighted four key
attributes of Royal Commissions:
- public and
- yielding a reasoned
He contrasted these with what may be seen as the
characteristics of modern political practice. Can our government structures, he
asks, only deal with the immediate spot fire and cannot deal with large issues?
He does not suggest government structures should replicate the processes used
by Royal Commissions, but he does suggest reconsideration of the relationship
between the political branches of government and the public service.
The emerging context: continuity as
well as change
In my original submission to the Review, I identified
different elements of the context in which the APS is now operating and is
likely to operate over the next decade including:
- the role of government
and the APS
- the international context
- federalism developments
- interaction with third
A central message I tried to convey is the importance of a
sense of continuity and stability as well as adaptability to change to deliver
better, more responsive and more efficient public services and to improve
policy advice. Taking advantage of new technologies is important, but it is a
means not an end, and it is not the only challenge facing the APS. The basic
role of government has not changed, but there is a growing international
dimension and more sharing of responsibilities with the states. Using
consultants and non-government service providers can enhance public services,
but it is also vital to appreciate the value of career public servants and the
expertise required within the APS. Addressing trust requires reinforcing
understanding of traditional public service values and other legal
requirements, and not just promoting flexibility and agility.
A preferred reform agenda
The Review’s interim report, Priorities for Change,
released in March this year, was disappointingly thin and flavoured with
consultants’ clichés. In our response to the interim report, Helen Williams and
I noted that it could be argued that this in itself demonstrates some of the
weaknesses in APS capability and independence that need to be addressed.
Hopefully, the Review’s final report is much more substantial.
I was pleased the interim report’s first priority for change
was to strengthen the culture, governance and leadership model. Significant
repair is needed to re-establish the importance of the APS in line with its
constitutional role as an institution of responsible government. It does not
need a new ‘inspiring purpose and vision that unifies the public service’, but
specific measures which reinforce the existing first object in the PSA
that I referred to earlier.
Merit must again be included amongst the APS values as the
original principle behind a professional civil service. The way the values are
expressed should also be recast to clarify the distinct role of the APS
compared to that of politicians, political advisers, the parliamentary service,
and other public sector employees:
responsive to the elected government in line with democratic principles, but
also neutral or non-partisan, and openly accountable through the system of
impartial in dealing with the public, and committed to serving the public
efficiently, effectively and courteously
- merit guiding all its internal
workforce relationships and
ethical standards beyond being subject to the law, commensurate with being paid
by taxpayers and exercising public power.
Clarification of the APS values in these terms, highlighting
key relationships, might then facilitate the articulation of the values of the
other groups of Commonwealth employees, including ministers and other
politicians, clarifying both common and distinct values given their different
roles and responsibilities.
The role of the APS Commissioner needs further
strengthening, particularly in light of the common practice in recent decades
of prime ministers appointing individuals known and favoured personally by them
as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). The interim
report does not go far enough in this regard. The APS needs a clear and
separate professional head of the Service, focused on stewardship of the APS
and its capability to serve future governments as well as the current one. This
is consistent with the functions of the Commissioner as currently set out in section
41 of the PSA. The Secretary of PM&C is the operational head,
marshalling the resources of the APS to meet the requirements and lawful
directions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
This distinction, and strengthening the role of the APS
Commissioner, requires a change in the process of appointment of the APS
Commissioner. This appointment should be subject to consultation with the
Parliament as now occurs for the Auditor-General.
The APS Commissioner should also take the lead role in
advising on secretary appointments. My preference would be to go further along
New Zealand lines where the State Services Commissioner makes the final
appointments after consulting the Prime Minister and relevant minister but, given
our long history, that seems unlikely to be accepted by our Parliament. If that
is so, the process should continue to involve appointments by the Governor-General
on advice from the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister should be required
first to consider advice from a selection advisory panel led by the APS
Commissioner with up to two other secretaries selected by the Commissioner,
usually but not necessarily including the Secretary of PM&C. In the event
the Prime Minister does not follow that advice, the Prime Minister should be
required to table in the Parliament the reasons, based on merit, for appointing
the person recommended to the Governor-General.
Such a firmer role for the APS Commissioner should
facilitate better succession management across the APS. Happily, I understand
that, consistent with this, the current Commissioner has re-introduced
directions requiring his or her representative to certify that any SES
appointment has been made properly on the basis of merit through open
competition, and without political interference.
The interim report suggests a stronger role for the
Secretaries Board. Some clarification is needed before this is accepted. The
Secretaries Board does not have any executive authority. To the extent its role
is to help marshal APS resources to meet the requirements of the Prime Minister
and Cabinet, executive authority lies strictly at the political level, and it
is appropriate for the Secretary of PM&C to chair the Secretaries Board as
it responds. To the extent the role is to take responsibility for stewardship
of the APS (currently its first function set out in the PSA), the Board
should be chaired by the APS Commissioner and include the heads of major
non-departmental agencies such as the ATO.
The interim report canvasses the relationship between the
APS and ministers as one element of a later priority to strengthen internal and
external partnerships. This relationship is not just a partnership: it goes to
the heart of the governance of the APS. Moreover, contrary to the view in the
ANZSOG paper commissioned by the Review, the APS does not have a ‘misplaced
sense of primacy’. Yes, there is now much more scope for constructive
competition of ideas and many sources of expert advice on public policies, but
secretaries are rightly identified as the ‘principal official policy advisers’
to ministers and the APS has particularly important attributes when advising:
- not least, the ability to
draw on its experience in administering policies
- being clearly
- having appreciation of
the broad direction and philosophy of the elected government and
the capacity to see policies in one area in the context of the framework of
related policies across government.
The partnership between the APS and ministers and their
advisers rests on appreciation of the different roles and values, and of the
degree of separation and independence.
No doubt there can be benefits in having some senior public
servants seconded to ministerial offices, so long as this does not blur
respective roles and values; also, it is not for the APS to press this. I
always placed more emphasis on selection of the senior departmental liaison
officer, ensuring the individual was amongst our best and brightest,
demonstrating the capabilities the department could offer, able to direct the
minister and the office to the relevant experts in the department, and having
the ‘clout’ to ring me directly in the event of some sensitive issue arising.
The APS Review, and the ANZSOG paper, rightly emphasise the
importance of clarifying the role of ministerial staff and strengthening their
professionalism. This might be assisted by amending the Members of
Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 in respect of these staff, including specifying
the values they must uphold (which should include respect for the role of the
public service) and clarifying their accountability.
Missing from the interim report is any discussion of the appropriateness
of different government structures for different functions. This is an
important issue which relates to the varying degree of independence appropriate
for different functions. The greater independence provided to statutory
authorities is often appropriate for regulatory functions and for highly expert
or specialist activities such as museums and research organisations. Even
greater independence is warranted for those exercising ‘integrity’ functions,
such as the offices of the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, the Information
Commissioner and the Electoral Commissioner. These should have a special
relationship with the Parliament, with appointments to head them subject to parliamentary
approval. There is also a strong case for having non-departmental agencies
delivering some services, focusing more on the clients they serve than on
serving and advising ministers. The recent decision to re-establish a separate
agency to deliver services to Indigenous Australians is strongly supported; it
would be good if in time Services Australia was no longer a ministerial
department but a separate agency (or agencies) devoted to quality service
The interim report rightly identifies the importance of
genuine transparency and accountability as a key aspect of governance. The
Prime Minister also has indicated that performance management is a priority for
his Government telling secretaries in May that: ‘There will be very clear
targets about performance levels that we’ll expect from the delivery of the
There are dangers in a blunt approach to performance
management aimed solely at holding particular officials or ministers
responsible for achieving particular targets, notwithstanding the benefits of
clear lines of accountability. Performance management needs to embrace learning
about what works and what does not, and about the resources and capabilities
required to achieve desired performance both in the short term and in the
longer term. In addition to setting clear targets and publicly reporting
achievement against them, there is a need, as the Review’s interim report
suggests, for a more systematic approach to evaluation of policies and programs
that provides evidence of their efficiency and effectiveness, and of the
appropriateness of the associated policy objectives. The ANZSOG papers on
evaluation commissioned by the Review provide excellent guidance in this
regard, reinforcing the strengthening of performance reporting required by the PGPA
Act and encouraged by last year's Alexander and Thodey Report on the
implementation of that Act. A more systematic approach to evaluation should
- requiring all new policy
proposals to Cabinet to include evidence that supports the proposal
submissions to identify the processes by which a proposed measure is to be
evaluated if agreed upon
all portfolios to have evaluation plans agreed with Finance covering all
portfolio programs and policies and
- the expectation that
evaluations will be made public.
Reinstating the capability reviews as proposed by the Review
is also strongly supported. Again, the PGPA Act and last year’s review
provide clear direction for agencies to pay more attention to organisational
capability, including through the corporate planning processes which are now
Performance targets must also be commensurate with the
resources the Government makes available, making even more important reform of
the way agencies are funded for running costs (which I shall turn to shortly).
While the interim report gives priority to improving
capability and talent development, it is disappointing in its limited analysis
of current skills, trends in careers and future skills requirements. Nonetheless,
I believe it is right to draw attention to the evidence of capability lost in
recent years and to emphasise the importance of specific expertise, not just
service-wide generalist skills.
The proposed ‘professions model’ drawn from UK experience
may help to give priority to expertise, reinforcing the importance of
professional skills and continuing education through professional networks. More
important in my view is for departments and agencies to build or reinstate
dedicated policy research and analysis units, and to pursue a more professional
approach to corporate management and workforce planning and development. More
systematic identification of the skills and knowledge required for the
management of each program and for associated policy advising could also drive
staff development and inform recruitment strategies. This proved particularly
successful, for example, in the early days of Centrelink when Sue Vardon
established a virtual TAFE within the organisation to support a systematic
approach to skills development and career paths to improve service delivery.
I am not sure that mobility into the SES or middle
management from outside the APS is a major service-wide problem, and suspect
that individual agencies are best placed to have strategies to address such
problems where they are most likely to arise, such as ensuring suitable state
government experience to manage programs involving direct interaction with
state responsibilities, as in health, education and infrastructure.
I believe continued focus on recruiting some of the best and
brightest graduates and guiding them carefully through their public service
careers is likely to remain the primary avenue for ensuring the leadership the
APS needs. This may be assisted by reintroducing a modified version of the
former cadetship and administrative trainee programs.
Such strategies need to be complemented by other measures to
ensure appropriate diversity within the APS. The APS should never attempt to be
exactly representative as it is rightly becoming a more highly skilled,
graduate public service in order to meet its obligations to the public, but
there is room to take further the programs aimed to increase representation of
particular groups, consistent with the merit principle. These include programs
to increase Indigenous employment, which need to be enhanced to ensure they
lead to increase representation at more senior levels, and further action to
improve employment of people with disabilities.
In line with the Review’s terms of reference, its interim report
also gives priority to building a flexible APS operating model, but again it is
very short on detail.
While seeking more flexibility, it also rightly expresses
concern about the frequency of Machinery of Government (MOG) changes. To help
find an appropriate balance, I hope the final report sets out some ongoing
principles to guide MOG arrangements, building on the 1987 reforms.
It does seem likely, though I am not an expert, that taking
full advantage of new technologies will require more across-APS infrastructure
and interoperability to facilitate collaboration, allow more responsive service
delivery to citizens and communities, and drive increased efficiency. The interim
report seems to be pointing in this direction with its suggestion of a ‘stable
spine of common digital platforms and policy frameworks’, but it provides no
The APS has previously been very successful in adopting new
technology and transforming its operations: in the 1960s and early 1970s with
the use of computing, and again in the 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of
personal computers and the Internet. Each time an across-APS strategy was
adopted including substantial changes to HRM arrangements as well as investment
in hardware and software. The impact was not immediate or overly disruptive,
but over time was transformational. Similarly, I do not think the impact of new
technology over the next decade need be too disruptive, but it is likely to be
transformative again. Care will be needed nonetheless in managing the change.
There is a long history internationally of failures from pursuing major IT
projects too quickly and without sufficient appreciation of the impact on
employees, the citizens involved and the third parties affected.
There is a reference in the interim report to the ‘strategic
allocation of funds’, but no indication of future processes for funding
agencies’ running costs. After over 25 years of efficiency dividends and
repeated evidence that they present serious problems particularly for small
agencies, including by disguising the need to reduce the level or quality of
services, it is to be hoped the final report will recommend a new approach
which encourages productivity improvement while making explicit the expected
impact (positive or negative) on service levels or quality, allowing proper
accountability respectively of the Government and the public service. I have
set out the framework I believe would achieve this, and look forward to seeing
the Review's recommendations and reasoning.
The interim report also suggests a ‘move towards common pay
and conditions’ but again without any detail of how this might be achieved.
Again, replacing the current method of setting pay and conditions is long
overdue. It bears no relation to the way labour markets operate, and it
involves extraordinary transaction costs. It is entirely likely that many
public servants are overpaid, and many underpaid. Enterprise bargaining based
on the APS as a whole rather than a series of separately operating enterprises
would facilitate a proper and consistent process of market comparisons, and
ensure consideration of total remuneration including superannuation.
It is also important to revisit secretary pay arrangements.
The Remuneration Tribunal is right to use market comparisons, but it uses the
wrong comparisons; it also measures work value in ways that are not consistent
with public sector practice (including the standard practice of moving
secretaries across portfolios from time to time). Changing the membership of
the Remuneration Tribunal might ensure its processes are better attuned to
public sector reality.
Other important aspects of the future operating model are
touched upon in the interim report under the heading, ‘Partnerships’.
Particularly important, but not clarified in the report, is the architecture
needed to ensure what it refers to as ‘seamless services and local solutions,
designed and delivered with states, territories and other partners’. The
Government's announcement to change the Department of Human Services (DHS) to
Services Australia, and to draw on the experience of Services New South Wales,
indicates strong interest in pursuing this agenda. But the devil will be in the
detail. The services the former DHS delivers are very different to those
delivered by Services NSW.
For services that need to be delivered physically or in
person, the architecture of local and regional delivery will be critical. There
is a long history of exploration of this issue, including before, during and
since the 1976 Coombs report. Over the last decade, significant work has been
undertaken in health to develop a shared Commonwealth-State approach to
regional networks; more recently, considerable effort has been made to improve
infrastructure investment through state city planning frameworks and city deals
with the Commonwealth. It is to be hoped that the Review’s final report sets
out some of the principles for effective and coordinated local and regional
Also important to the architecture of delivery of personal
services is the balance between delivery by APS employees and delivery by
contracted non-government providers (whether for profit or not-for-profit). The
public needs to be confident not only in the efficiency and effectiveness of
service delivery but also that the delivery is consistent with public service
values, including fairness and inclusiveness, and that the services are
delivered equitably to all Australians. In some cases, this strongly suggests
delivery by APS employees; in other cases, some direct involvement by APS
employees may still be advisable to retain direct interaction with the public
and to retain capability in the APS.
Benefits for the Government, the
Parliament and the Australian public
Whether the Government favours a broad or limited role for
the Commonwealth Government, it needs a high quality APS. I have heard too
often the view that the current relationship between ministers and the APS
‘works for ministers’, and that a more independent civil service offers more
political risk than benefits to ministers. My suspicion is that this is more
often the view of ministerial staff than ministers themselves. A government
genuinely determined to improve services to Australians and to pursue policies
in our long-term interests should value a highly capable civil service.
The Parliament also relies critically on a high quality APS,
confident in its professionalism and impartiality, and its capacity to serve
future governments as well as the current one. It also expects the APS to meet
its accountability obligations, supporting ministerial accountability by proper
non-partisan reporting to the Parliament and responding to questions. Whether members
are ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ they should value the constitutional role
of the APS in our system of responsible government and appreciate the need to
get the governance arrangements right.
In the end, the APS is the public’s service, not the
Government's. The elected government is certainly responsible for defining the
public interest in terms of its policies, but the APS is critical to delivering
on the public interest, both through service delivery that is impartial,
available to all citizens and responsive to their needs, and through policy
advising that is professional, looks to the long term, takes into account the
full breadth of its experience, and is not partial to any sectoral interest.
I sincerely hope the APS review generates some real and
lasting reforms. There are serious problems that urgently require attention, as
well as new challenges almost certainly requiring significant and possibly
transformational change in the way the APS delivers programs and offers advice.
I'm also hopeful that, on reflection, the Prime Minister
takes a broader view of the important role of the APS that goes beyond service
delivery and implementation of government policies to encompass strategic
policy advice that is taken seriously. No doubt the policy challenges the
Government will face, including those the Prime Minister has already flagged
regarding the economy and global uncertainties, will require careful
consideration drawing on expert public service advice. Investing in the
capability of the APS and nurturing it as an institution is a particular
responsibility of any prime minister, as John Howard said in his 1997 Garran
Let me say at the outset my firm belief that an accountable,
non-partisan and professional public service which responds creatively to the
changing roles and demands of government is a great national asset. Preserving
its value and nurturing its innovation is a priority of this Government.
The responsibility of any government must be to pass onto its
successor a public service which is better able to meet the challenges of its time
than the one it inherited.
Finally, let me underline again the importance of the APS as
a constitutional institution. The recent High Court decision conveys that; with
careful legal reasoning and an appreciation of history that has so far been
missing in the consultant rhetoric of much of the APS Review documentation.
This constitutional role demands stability and continuity, counterbalancing the
undoubted importance of flexibility and innovation as the context in which the
APS operates changes and new challenges and opportunities emerge. Functioning
properly, the APS and the broader public sector not only deliver important
public goods and services and address market failures, but they enhance the
capacity of the economy to grow and deliver improvements in the economic and
social wellbeing of all Australians. Protecting and nurturing the APS is vital.
 Presented by Professor
Podger as a Parliamentary Library Lecture on 10 September 2019.
This paper has been provided by a presenter in the
Parliamentary Library’s Seminar and Lecture Series. The views expressed do
not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library.
The copyright remains with the original author and
permission may be required to reuse the material.