I joined the APS as a base grade clerk nearly sixty years ago. I have been a permanent public servant, contract employee, or statutory officer in the APS or NTPS, or close observer ever since.
I have watched the fads, including decentralisation, recentralisation, contract employment, outsourcing, performance pay, program budgeting, mega departments, risk taking, cutting red tape, revitalisation, redundancy packages etc.
All have eroded the ethics and professionalism of the public service I joined in 1958.
Attached are some thoughts that I hope the Review Panel will consider.
REFORMING THE APS
Contract employment. Politicisation
Putting CEOs and SES on term renewable contracts is not the way for governments to obtain frank and fearless advice. But the officers WILL fear not having their contracts renewed
Making political appointments to senior positions in key agencies without a merit selection process is destroying motivation in career public servants
These practices inevitably lead to the politicisation of the APS, and a consequent decline in the professionalism of the advice
This also leads inevitably to a roll-over in the senior ranks of departments on each change of government, with the accompanied disruption and loss of corporate memory
The rapid growth in the numbers of staff in Ministerial Offices (remember John Stone’s memorable remarks about ‘meretricious players of the Ministerial stage’ 40 years ago) diminishes the effectiveness of departmental advice
It is quite incomprehensible to outsiders that governments would prefer to draw advice from card carrying sympathisers, rather than from public servants with the deeper knowledge who can be scrutinised and held to account
Erosion of capability
Cutting salaries budgets year in year out, and then providing a much greater sum than the savings to spend on consultancies, is lunacy
The sub-set of this is those who obtained Redundancy Packages (many on dubious grounds?), are then rehired at a much higher rate as consultants
The ANAO Report tabled in the Parliament on 11 May 2018 found that Home Affairs, Attorney-Generals, Defence, Digital Transformation Office, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority, Australian Securities and Investment Commission, and even the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency itself, had not been able to mitigate the government’s exposure to security threats
Consultants are not as tightly bound by Secrecy provisions, and the Code of Conduct
Are the constant leaks a consequence of this, or the politicisation of the APS?
Structures have gone haywire. There are now basically no base-grade entry points
Numbers at SES levels have grown at probably a greater rate than the reductions in the numbers at lower grades. More and more Queen Bees, fewer and fewer drones
Fifty years ago we had a pyramidal structure – now it sits on its apex
Duplication and cost shifting
Duplication and overlap.
Canberra assuming it knows best (God forbid), and ignores structures on the ground, whether State (and Territory) governments, or local governments (libraries, pink bats . . )
The Australian Government intruding on the Constitutional responsibility of the States more and more each year by the spurious vehicle of Special Purposes Payments with onerous terms and conditions, or by direct grants-in-aid to incorporated bodies
Massive cost-shifting on to both the lower tiers of government, local governments in the Northern Territory in particular
The more remote the Regional Council, the higher the likelihood the other arms of government will not relocate staff but grant fund the Regional Council to provide an ‘agency’ service
The primary funder does so generally with no provision for on-costs such as housing etc, and grants are usually on an annual renewable basis
70% of a Regional Council’s funds can come from such grants. A typical council could have 150 separate grants. 150 ever more onerous application forms, and acquittals. 600 quarterly progress reports. And not a cent for administration.
Canberra centrism v regionalisation. How many very senior officers in Canberra have ever worked in a State capital, let alone a regional location? How can they ‘feel’ the country, and its peoples? And make sensible decisions?
In different stories in the NT News in the same week in early May 2018, we were told about 10 APS staff being decentralised to the NT (ORIC, Centrelink, Medicare); and how the Australian Electoral Commission staff in the NT was slashed from 15 down to 3 one year, which marked its last visit to an Aboriginal Community
The widespread use of generic selection criteria in the APS needs to be revisited. It is clearly one of the main reasons staff in contact areas in Indigenous affairs seem to have no knowledge of their roles
The other reason for this appears to be a concerted effort to rid agencies of any remaining capability in Indigenous affairs by the dubious use of ‘redundancy packages’
Once, in depth experience was treasured. Now such people appear to be an embarrassment because they show up new breed managers lacking experience recruited through generic selection criteria
Experienced people these days are disparaged with the accusation of being ‘dinosaurs’
Senior staff recruited laterally from outside the public service cannot hope to quickly comprehend public service culture, and protocols, and the necessary arms-length distance between politics and the administration. People who are developed within the public service are immersed in these subtleties
Australia modelled its public service on the British system, and it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the British rationale for a permanent Civil Service:
The Civil Service
Permanence of civil servants
In Britain, the civil service is a permanent institution, which does not change with governments. Civil servants are expected to be willing and able to serve governments of whatever political complexion. The civil service is intended to provide expertise and continuity between governments and ministers. On average, a minister is likely to be in post only for a little over two years and is therefore unlikely to be able to develop the breadth of understanding of departmental issues that a civil servant will have.This contrasts with the United States, where all the senior civil service posts are political appointments and change with each Presidential administration.The advantages of a permanent civil service include:· the development of knowledge and expertise on departmental issues· the development of knowledge and expertise on the workings of the governmental machine· the ability to give practical and unbiased advice to ministers· continuity between ministers and between governments· it reduces the likelihood of wide policy swings from one government to another· it minimises the risks of unrealistic or unwise policies being implemented.