Australia’s public service has been gutted

By Leith van Onselen

Former Treasury Secretaries, Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson, have teamed up to deliver a damning assessment of Australia’s public service, which they believe has been stripped raw by decades of government outsourcing and waves of senior redundancies.

As reported in The AFR, both Henry and Parkinson believe that the capabilities of the Australian Public Service have been so degraded that they are no longer capable of giving “frank and fearless” advice to the Government, nor formulate robust policy:

“Many departments have lost the capacity to develop policy; but not just that, they have lost their memory,” Dr Henry says… “I seriously doubt there is any serious policy development going on in most government departments”…

In addition to growing doubts about the ability of the bureaucracy to solve national problems, Dr Parkinson… laments in the essay the consequences of “blurring of boundaries” between public servants and political advisors, as well as the “relentless focus on message over substance” in government.

This “results in a diminution of the ‘space’ in which the independent advisor can operate,” he says.

“Today, in some institutions, smart people look around at their colleagues and find there is no one to talk to, to learn from, who has experience in delivering real reform.

“The combination of these two things is a decline in the quality of advice and an erosion of capability, to the detriment of good government,” Dr Parkinson says in the essay.

I am not surprised by this critique. While working at the Australian and Victorian Treasuries in the mid-2000s, I witnessed the loss of independence and the politicisation of the public service first hand, whereby governments of both persuasions were too willing to outsource policy development to consultants or (erroneously named) think tanks.

Add in the seemingly unbridled growth in the number of staffers and advisors in ministers’ offices, and the role of departments in policy formulation and advice have been badly diminished.

A classic example of this neutering occurred when I worked on the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (US FTA). There I saw the Howard Government commission the Centre for International Economics (CIE) to undertake the modelling of the agreement, even though the Productivity Commission (PC) was available (and wanted) the job. It was believed by many at the time that the CIE was chosen over the PC because it would provide more favourable modelling results, making it easier for the Government to sell the deal to the public. By contrast, the PC was inherently skeptical of preferential trade agreements (for good reason), and it was feared that it would provide a poor assessment of the US FTA if commissioned to undertake the work.

Similarly, while working at the Victorian Government, I saw an $80,000 contract granted to a consulting firm to assess the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme – work that could easily have been done in-house using existing resources.

There are a number of reasons why governments increasingly prefer to use consultants over the public service.

First, it provides them with cover. They can claim that a given policy is based on “independent advice”, even though the results are often pre-determined and effectively purchased. Second, it allows governments to deflect blame to the consultancy firm (read cover their arse) in the event that a policy goes bad.

There is also the problem that public servants who think outside the box, who come up with creative and radical reform options, are too often marginalised. It’s much easier to be an “index hugger” that joins in the group-think than somebody who challenges the status quo.

The public service culture also prizes those that sit down, shut up and row in unison above those that don’t. Of course, attending the plethora of morning teas and meetings, along with throwing out a few buzz words, helps one’s career prospects too.

The upshot is that the days of “frank and fearless advice” are gone, replaced by spin and bought analysis designed to support a pre-conceived political agenda.

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