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Ian Bowie

It was never in my mind to make a submission but a Sydney Morning Herald advertisement today and my recent dealings experiences with and longer term observations on the ABS, the ATO, the BOM, CSIRO, the Department of Environment, the Australian Parliamentary Library and Centrelink/Department of Human Resources and Department of Home Affairs encourages me to offer both praise and criticisms.

My dealings have been of two kinds:

(1) seeking data (or explanation of data)information from the first six, and

(2) seeking help/advice of a service nature from the last two

My observations relate more generally to two further kinds of what appear to me (from reading in the media) to be:

(3) the way in which the APS interacts with politicians (notably Ministers) and

(4) the apparent capacity of the APS to manage complex projects/line items

As to the first, I want to express my unbounded praise for the way in which these agencies and individuals within them have responded to my needs for information and explanations. When making comparisons (eg with NZ agencies) I am astounded and gratified that so much data is freely available on government websites. I am even more enthusiastic about the way in which personnel who I suppose might best be described as 'middle management' have been prepared to discuss what most people would consider to be arcane matters with an old dodderer like me.

A case in point would be my queries about personal income and tax in Australia about which I have been seeking a fuller understanding than politicians in all main parties (notably the Treasurer and his assistants) seem to be bothered about. For me the kinds of responses I have had from the APS have represented the best in professionalism and open government. The tragedy and danger in this is that APS reports suggests that these agencies are increasingly outsourcing or reducing (via efficiency dividends) the kind of professional (or specialist) staff who can generate data for website use or respond to queried about it.

As to the second, my dealings have been mainly to do with seeking information, both general and specific, on age care. I hardly need make the point that age care has become a minefield particularly for those of us who have to (or will shortly need to) call on some component of it but also for carers/guardians who find they need to learn about this minefield often at short notice and with little understanding of where to start. I want to praise the Financial Advisory Service of Centrelink (because it can offer independent advice which helps to qualify what comes from financial planners) but observe that it is Redacted difficult to get its advice quickly in 'the regions': that Service simply needs more professional staff on the spot. My other dealings with Centrelink have been with telecentre operators and while they have been courteous and helpful I'm not confident that are are always trained to deal with more complex queries or, I dare say, with the anguish of aged people needing immediate home or residential care.

I have also had dealings with the Australian Passport Office - which have been more frustrating in getting a passport renewal. My comment here would be simply that getting a New Zealand passport renewal online was so much easier than getting an Australian passport renewal online (and then , with the help of Australia Post). It appears to be a matter of technology, easily solved by looking east.'s

As to the way in which the APS appears to interact with politicians, I despair as to the manner in which politicians dont just abuse data from parts of the APS; they ignore it. The recent 'debate' about personal income tax supports my point: that politician dont know or dont care about where to start understanding data. In my judgment the Australian Parliamentary Library does a fine job in objectively translating what can be complex and difficult data into terms that politicians should be able to understand but I doubt that many politicians avail themselves of this service: that is an argument for augmenting the resources of the Parliamentary Library rather than reducing them, to make the Library more proactive with information.

My concern here even more is with the manner in which ministers and shadow ministers appear incapable of coping with complex and difficult data. I appreciate that the APS must be independent and a-political but as an outsider I'd have to say (and the recent debate about personal incomes and tax highlights this) that there appears to be very little of 'the, for God's sake, Minister....' kind of advice that senior politicians so often appear to need. I appreciate that, with growing numbers of senior staff subject to performance reviews and often on contract with tenure at the whim of a Minister (eg a recent Solicitor-General) it is understandable that many in the APS appear to be timid when it comes to policy advice but an APS that is prepared to go out there and say eg to a Minister that his policy is wrong-minded is not necessarily an APS that has been 'politicised'.

Of course, a difficulty for the APS is that politicians (especially ministers) now have so many of their own staff (who, sometimes appear to see themselves as to do the work of the APS); perhaps the interface between offices and APS agencies should be less defined, with many more secondments to ministerial offices.

Finally , as to the capacity of the APS to manage stuff, here I am on uncertain ground but it does appear to me from the outside of the cabin that in areas where agencies have to manage private sector activities they just do not have the experience, expertise and depth to do their jobs properly. I'd cite just two examples. Firstly: the apparent incapacity of ASIC, APRA and the raft of other agencies supposed to regulate the financial sector to actually regulate the activities of very powerful and very self-serving corporations in the private sector - which is so profound that we're having a Royal Commission looking into the behaviour of the financial sector. Secondly: the incapacity of the Department of Home Affairs to control the behaviour (and spending) of the private sector corporations who manage our concentration camps.

In neither of these cases can the private sector be trusted to do the management: but to do what governments have to do the APS needs much expertise

My conclusion is that we need a better resourced APS and that our Federal Government simply needs to stop efficiency dividends which cannot promote an efficient and effective APS.

This text has been redacted: swearing