This chapter will canvass matters relating to the culture of the Australian Public Service (APS) and conclude with the committee's final observations.
In relation to culture, the chapter will examine:
the continued importance of the Westminster tradition; and
the trend of politicisation within the APS.
As set out in Chapter 2 of this report, the APS was founded in the Westminster tradition as an impartial, professional and merit-based service designed to serve successive governments. As the Independent Review of the APS (Thodey Review) noted, while the Westminster approach provides a set of 'interrelated principles' to guide the APS, the tradition has also been regularly revisited and reviewed to ensure it adapts to suit the needs of the country.
The Thodey Review strongly affirmed the Westminster tradition as the system on which to base the APS's foundations 'today and into the foreseeable future'.
In making this affirmation it explicitly rejected 'any move' towards a partisan 'Washminster' model whereby agency heads change when governments change and senior public servants (for example, secretaries of departments) have clear political allegiances.
As the final report explained:
Retaining a Westminster foundation delivers a professional and permanent APS. It supports the APS to make necessary longer-term investments in its core and emerging capabilities, rebuilding its expertise, skills and institutional memory. It delivers an impartial and professional public service which underpins trust in the institution and, by extension, democracy. It ensures the APS can continue to attract and retain bright, dedicated people in the knowledge that they will have a rewarding career without the fear of losing their job with a change of Government. In contrast, Australia could not operate under a Washington model — it lacks the broader set of institutions that allows the United States of America to support a more partisan public service.
The final report of the Thodey Review touched upon the nature of the relationship between the APS and the elected government. It included the following quote, attributed to conversations with former APS secretaries, that asserted that over time this relationship had changed 'for the worse':
A key issue for the APS is its relationship with the elected government (and to some extent the Opposition) — this has changed, for the worse over time. Governments have shifted from wanting advisers to wanting fellow travellers, and tend to look more for those with similar views; this makes it much more difficult for the APS to operate according to the traditional model (such as being apolitical).
It is this notion of whether it has become more challenging for the APS to operate in an apolitical manner that this chapter now turns.
The committee examined issues surrounding the politicisation of the APS and the corresponding impact on capability. It received evidence and observations from a number of independent observers on the matter suggesting that the capability of the APS was being adversely impacted by a creeping politicisation, or at the very least, increased political pressure.
John Halligan, Emeritus Professor in Public Administration at the University of Canberra, submitted to the committee in a private capacity. He identified politicisation as one of the major themes in the development of the APS that had significantly impacted on its capability over the past four decades. He noted that this development was similar to public services in Anglophone countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
Professor Halligan defined politicisation as the expansion of the political sphere within the executive branch and described 'underlying politicisation' as the assertion of political authority and influence in the drive for policy implementation and results.
He noted that components of this included:
redefining relationships and roles;
the appointment process for senior public servants;
asserting executive authority;
the extensive use of political advisers; and
the notion that the incumbent government has ownership of the public service.
In regard to the outcomes of this process Professor Halligan explained:
The result has been that political actors have permeated much more of the public management system. With the political executive taking more direct control there is government on demand. Lack of bipartisanship on approaches to public service also impacts on capability innovation. Limits to political influence remain because Westminster principles (a merit-based, professional and apolitical civil service) still matter to some extent.
Professor Halligan also made the observation that the 'temporary occupancy of the government of the day is not tantamount to ownership' of the APS.
He drew the committee's attention to risks of diminished capability when governments behaved without sufficient regard for 'institutional considerations':
The problem with governments and ministers pursuing their own policy and management agendas without sufficient regard for institutional considerations is that cumulatively this has major institutional effects as well as collateral damage.
Professor Andrew Podger AO, an Honorary Professor of Public Policy at the Australian National University with a lengthy career at senior executive levels of the APS (including as secretary to several departments and APS Commissioner) provided evidence to the committee on the matter in his private capacity. He emphasised that one of the underlying issues that continued to undermine APS capability was the nature of the relationship between the public service, the government, and the Parliament.
He drew attention to the shifting nature of the relationship between the political executive and senior public servants; with the latter going from being treated as public 'trustees' to 'agents' with ministers as 'principals'.
He further observed that one aspect of this shift had been a reduction in demand from government for the services the APS 'could and should' provide.
Professor Podger remarked that the politicisation of the APS should be viewed as a wider concept than 'just simply talking about whether senior appointments are politically motivated'. He explained:
It's more to do with the extent to which the political executive exercises power over administration. That, I think, has caused increasing problems, and those problems have been more particularly over the last 20 years than previously.
Professor Podger also commented on the political pressure evidenced by the poor quality of performance and capability reporting coming out of the APS. In particular, he drew attention to the 'uneasiness' that public servants seemed to have in publishing information that 'might cause political difficulty'.
Professor Podger provided an example which he felt demonstrated the kind of political pressure the APS must navigate in the present context, centred on the lack of agency submissions to recent reviews examining the APS. He indicated to the committee that it was instructive to pose the question of why APS agencies felt like they could not give views on the public record, even when related to their own capability. He elaborated:
Just one minor illustration of the increase in political pressure over the years. You mentioned earlier in the morning having looked at the Coombs Royal Commission [1974–1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration]. One of the striking things about that royal commission was the amount and quality of submissions by agencies to that commission. Contrast that with the weakness and the very small number of submissions to the Thodey review in 2018-19. Have a look also at the most recent APS Commission's own review that it is undertaking now into classification. Have a look at what departments have put in. The departments' submissions are extraordinarily weak, few in number, yet this is vital to their whole capability. How do they handle the classification, the career management, the development of their staff? There are so limited submissions put in.
In providing this observation, he emphasised that:
You have got to ask the question: why is a public service feeling they can't give views on the public record, even on their own management.
Looking to the future, Professor Podger submitted that a number of factors suggested the likelihood of continued close political control of the APS, rather than the partnership implied by Westminster principles which involved a considerable degree of independence. These factors included:
the increasing influence of the political executive (including through the changing role of ministerial advisers);
the close management of communications; and
In order to address this creeping politicisation and bolster the independence of the APS, Professor Podger recommended a focus on APS values. He explained:
More weight on the APS Values of professionalism, impartiality and non-partisanship, still consistent with proper responsiveness to the elected government, could be ensured by the sorts of measures recommended by Thodey [recommendation 5] that were not adopted by the Government. These imply a move back towards a public trustee relationship rather than principal-agent one.
Professor Podger indicated that his own preference would be for the APS to strengthen its professional standing and reinforce its non-partisanship by moving further towards a New Zealand-type public service model, even more so than the extent recommended by the Thodey Review. He explained this could be achieved by:
Establishing that the APS Commissioner is the professional head of the APS, with the appointment of the Commissioner being subject to endorsement by the relevant Parliamentary committee (as now occurs for the Auditor-General), and perhaps with longer tenure (the Auditor-General is appointed for 10 years);
Giving the Commissioner the main role in advising on secretary and other agency head appointments, with some constraint on the Prime Minister not accepting the Commissioner's advice;
Clarifying the role and accountability of ministerial advisers.
The committee queried the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on whether its audits had identified a trend of politicisation in the APS.
Auditor-General Mr Grant Hehir took care to frame his response with regard to the foundational framework with which the ANAO examines the APS:
The parliament establishes the framework under which the APS is meant to operate, and that sets some principles which relate to issues like: impartiality, frank and fearless advice and their obligation to serve the parliament, the government and the community of the day. In our work, what we do is audit against that framework. Issues that concern us and that we report on in audit reports relate to circumstances where a department may not provide advice on a policy issue and say, 'Well, you have said you want to do this, so this is how you do it,' without providing advice. We tend to comment on those types of factors.
I don't know whether I can comment on politicisation, but what we look for is the effectiveness of the public sector in undertaking its remit under the PS Act. I would say that most of the time we see people operate effectively within that framework.
However, the Auditor-General also cautioned that:
On occasions we see circumstances where the quality of advice is less than what you would anticipate under that framework that parliament's put in place.
Thodey Review findings
In addition to the evidence from submitters, the committee considered the analysis and findings of the Thodey Review.
The Thodey Review explored whether the APS was becoming politicised, noting that 'some have expressed concerns that the APS is becoming politicised, while others have cautioned against exaggeration'.
However, ultimately the final report stated:
Research undertaken for the review concluded that the 'political-administrative environment (is) becoming increasingly politicised'.
On this matter, the report included a reflection from former APS Commissioner Lynelle Briggs AO, who observed that there had been times when Australian public servants had felt themselves under pressure to make decisions or tailor advice in ways that furthered a government's political interests.
The report also included an observation from Mr David Morgan AO, a former senior public servant and member of the Thodey Review's reference group, who emphasised that the APS was not solely responsible to the government of the day:
We [the APS] have now become an APS that is responsive but we also have a responsibility to three constituencies. The Government, the Parliament and the Australian public and they're equally important.
The Thodey Review concluded that Australia was not alone in contending with politicisation. It commented:
Other Westminster countries are grappling with politicisation of the public sector, perceived or real, too.
To support the APS to best undertake its role in the Westminster tradition, the Thodey Review recommended that core guiding principles be distilled and set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (PS Act).
The five core principles proposed by the Thodey Review were:
The report noted that legislating these principles would provide clear guidance to the APS and its leaders and employees, as well as help reaffirm the Westminster tradition of the APS. It explained:
These recommended principles are currently scattered throughout the Public Service Act 1999 — in the Objects, APS Values, APS Employment Principles and Code of Conduct and within the functions and powers of the APS Commissioner, Secretaries Board, secretaries, agency heads, Merit Protection Commissioner, and SES [Senior Executive Serve]. Legislating these principles will enable them to be consolidated and defined as a powerful set of foundational principles for the APS, alongside the current APS Values.
In particular, the report emphasised that legislated principles should give merit and stewardship broader meaning than their current application.
For example, it showcased merit as a unique element that distinguishes the APS as an institution distinct from that of ministers and their advisers:
In the Public Service Act 1999, the merit principle is focused on engagement and promotion decisions pursuant to the APS Employment Principles. Merit is one of the factors that distinguishes the unique role of the APS as an institution, distinct from that of ministers and their advisers. Legislating an APS principle of merit would give it broader application in guiding all the organisation does.
In its response to the Thodey Review, the government did not agree with the part of recommendation 5 that related to legislating core principles in the PS Act. It stated:
Consistent with the Secretaries Board's advice, the Government does not agree with the recommendation to amend the Public Service Act 1999. The Government has made clear that it endorses the Westminster principles that underpin the APS, including as reflected in the Public Service Act 1999 and the APS Values, and it is not necessary to redefine and legislate these principles to achieve the intent of the recommendation.
On balance the committee is persuaded by the evidence before the inquiry that the APS is suffering from a creeping politicisation. This is cause for serious concern.
The APS must fiercely protect its independence. It is imperative that the APS remain apolitical in order to continue in the Westminster tradition and properly fulfil its legislated role within Australian democracy.
The committee is of the opinion that the APS can protect and uphold its core values of professionalism, impartiality and non-partisanship while still retaining proper responsiveness to the elected government of the day. It is not a zero-sum game.
To that end, the committee shares the assessment of the Thodey Review that more must be done to promote a shared understanding of the APS and its role alongside the Executive and Parliament among APS employees, parliamentarians and their advisers.
The committee finds Professor Podger's commentary on the increasing unease that public servants appear to feel in revealing anything that may cause political difficulty for the government to be a particularly interesting observation.
This is because the committee considers that it found itself on the receiving end of this unease from certain APS agencies during its inquiry, when legitimate requests for data and information were evaded, rebuffed or answered reticently, often in a superficial manner and after lengthy delays. The committee has also observed similar behaviours and attitudes from public servants on display in numerous other parliamentary settings over recent years, particularly during Senate estimates and the associated questions on notice process.
The committee does not seek to adjudicate or attribute intent for this attitude and behaviour on an individual level. However, in light of broader evidence on the increasing politicisation of the APS, it thinks it important to offer up its observations.
The role of the APS as set out in the Public Service Act 1999 is abundantly clear. The APS is established to be an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving not only the government of the day, but also the Parliament and the Australian public.
The latter two of these stakeholders hold equal importance with the first, and must be respected as such. The committee encourages public servants, particularly those at senior executive levels, to be mindful of this and lead by example.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government amend the Public Service Act 1999 as per recommendation 5 of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) to:
reflect key principles for the APS — apolitical, stewardship, openness, integrity and adherence to merit, and
extend application of these principles and APS Values to Commonwealth agencies not covered by the Public Service Act 1999.
The committee echoes the assessment of the Independent Review of the APS: the APS is not broken, but it can be improved.
The importance of a robust and capable APS in the face of future challenges has been clearly demonstrated by Australia's experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The APS must be sufficiently funded and resourced to allow it to excel at essential service delivery for the Australian community.
The hollowing out of APS capability through 'privatisation by stealth' must stop. There is an urgent need for the APS to pivot away from the damaging trend of externalisation.
The APS must focus on rebuilding and investing in in-house skills, systems and people in order to restore its capability and reach its full potential.