07 September 2009

Some ideas for the public sector revamp

The Weekend Australian, 5-6 September 2009, carries a report (PM backed on public sector revamp) which tells us that Professor John Wanna, who holds the Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the ANU, has backed the Prime Minister’s plans to “shake up the Australian Public Service”, as announced by Prime Minister Rudd at a conference last Thursday. Professor Wanna warns that the public sector has become “too technocratic and process driven”, and says that it needs to “improve its performance in strategic policy formulation”.

“A large part of the public sector has become technocratic – very focused on contract management and administrative processes”, said Professor Wanna ... “I think he (Mr Rudd) wants to instil new agility – creative thinking at the top and also moving through to the middle levels”.

Professor Wanna said there was a strong sense within the government that public service departments, particularly the large service agencies, had “morphed” into contract managers and that staff had become “deskilled” in how to develop and provide creative policy.

While the commonwealth public service remained the employer of choice for university graduates, too many of the service’s “best and brightest” left after a few years to work in the private sector or state public services.

If what was a very talented and capable Commonwealth Public Service has degraded to this, Governments need to ask themselves why, and to what extent their own behaviour is part of the problem. Some observations on Professor Wanna’s remarks:

(1) I don’t know what “technocratic” has to do with contract management. The complaint that a particular group of public servants is technocratic usually means that they have inconveniently high levels of domain knowledge and a lamentable tendency to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

(2) Complaints that a department is “process driven” usually amount to a complaint that the department insists on upholding the integrity of the regulatory framework within which it operates and declines to cut corners or bend the rules at the behest of the Minister or one of the Minister’s minders.

(3) If the Government seriously wishes to consider why departments have been deskilled at providing creative policy advice, and the best and the brightest don’t hang around for long, then it will examine carefully the stifling and dispiriting impact of Ministerial staff on the motivation of talented and committed people.

Ministerial staff are selected on the basis of their political alignment rather than their ability, domain knowledge, wisdom or judgement. Often they are aspirants to a political career. They can afford to be creative and imaginative because they are never accountable for the outcome.

Good policy development takes time and effort. Unfortunately, proximity to power is the basis of influence, and unknowledgeable and/or inexperienced “advisers” can blow away the policy development work of many days, nights and weekends in a few minutes, not to mention setting all sorts of hares running by posing questions out of context to middle level departmental people they happen to know or run into, irrespective of whether these people are involved in the matter at hand. Talented people will put up with just so much of this before deciding that they will abandon ship for better remuneration in the private sector – and it is the best and the brightest who have that choice.

(4) Ditto the endless parade of Government-selected amateur advisory committees so much in favour with both sides of politics. Talented people don’t join the public service to provide administrative support to a bunch of people who read the meeting papers on the way to Canberra on the plane, offer a few off-the-cuff remarks and return home leaving the support staff to write this up as some sort of cogent input to Government.

(5) Ditto the endless stream of maddening externally imposed “savings” programs which take up enormous time and effort, rarely produce sustainable savings or better ways of doing things, but crowd out the opportunity for capable administrators to introduce their own business improvement programs.

(6) If departments have defaulted to contract administration shops, it is perhaps because there is not much else left for them to do, and the obsession with outsourcing everything in sight has created such a contract administration workload that there is not much time to do anything else. Getting the private contractors to actually provide the services they promised at the essay-writing competition stage of the tender process can be hard work.

(7) Another factor is Ministerial intervention in senior staff appointments (contrary to the provisions of the Public Service Act), an inevitable accompaniment to the rise and rise of True Believers through the ranks, and their seamless movement between Ministerial offices and senior SES positions. From a career point of view, there is not much point in going all out to impress the Secretary if the Secretary is going to “consult” the Minister on senior SES appointments and fall into line with the Minister’s wishes.

This happens, and it is important. In 1999 I received some unsolicited advice from the Defence Minister about who he and the Foreign Minister thought would be the best person to be the next head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). I thanked the Minister for his opinion, said I someone else in mind, and reminded him that in accordance with the Public Service Act this was a decision for me to make.

This did not do much for my relationship with the Minister, but when in July 2004 Philip Flood issued his Report of the Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies, I had the satisfaction of seeing that DIO had, in reviewing the same evidence, reached a different conclusion from the Office of National Assessments (ONA) on the subject of whether or not Iraq had WMD – ONA said they did, DIO had maintained a healthy scepticism.

(8) Most important of all, the Government must address the question of Department Secretary tenure. The capacity for robust exchanges between Ministers and the public servants who advise them is fundamental to the maintenance of a healthy democracy – as some Ministers know. The capacity to terminate Secretaries at will, without explanation, is inimical to an atmosphere in which any sort of robust exchange can take place.

If you doubt the importance of such exchanges between leaders and their advisers, consider the interesting 4 September Financial Times article here, by contributing editor Max Hastings, about Churchill’s wartime leadership. Noting that in June 1940 Churchill decided to reinforce failure by sending additional British troops to France, Hastings says:

Only the stubborn insistence of General Sir Alan Brooke, the force’s commander, overcame the rash impulsiveness of the prime minister and forced him to assent to their evacuation. Almost 200,000 men who would otherwise have been lost were able to escape from the ports of north-western France while the Germans were preoccupied with finishing off the French army. I have called this a second Dunkirk, no less miraculous and decisive than the first.

We don’t do “stubborn insistence” anymore, but it was an acceptable mode of behaviour in Britain’s darkest hour.

The bottom line is that Government will only attract and retain the best and the brightest if it is clear that it values their services, and gives them clear air in which to give of their best. Some of the Prime Minister’s public commentary about the public service and its work ethic does not inspire optimism in that regard.

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