14 March 2017

Government abuses public servants at its peril

The 12 March 2017 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald carried an op-ed by economics writer Ross Gittins under the title Abused public servants help bring Turnbull down.
In this article, about “the Centrelink robo-debt stuff-up”, Gittings makes three points which have general validity for relationships between the Government and the public service; points which any government would be wise to consider:
  • making the department heads fear for their jobs should they do anything to annoy the government
  • while you can always bully the top public servants into covering for you, when you mistreat the servants they stop warning you about the hazards you face and, ultimately, indulge in schadenfreude when you fall over the cliff
  • limiting the ability of their departments to pass on unwelcome advice by interposing “a bunch of young punks and political wannabes” between them and their senior officials
How the once-fine Australian Public Service came to its current state has a long history. The fundamental change goes back to 1984 when the Public Service reforms introduced by John Dawkins, Minister assisting the Prime Minister in Public Service Matters in the Hawke Labor Government. It was from that time that what had once been known as Permanent Heads were placed on what were loosely described as 5-year contracts but which turned out not to be contracts at all – they were term appointments which the Government could terminate at will.

The insecure position in which this has placed Department Secretaries has been made abundantly clear first by John Howard and then by Tony Abbott, each of whom sacked several Department Heads on coming to office. More subtly, John Howard placed at least two Defence Secretaries on short term appointments (three years), neither of which was renewed. The message is plain: do what you are told, don’t make waves, don’t bring to light any inconvenient truths, or you will have your appointment terminated.

This situation has a chilling effect all the way down the command chain. A Department Secretary who does not want to be confronting the Minister with inconvenient realities will sideline Division Heads who they suspect will bring forward inconvenient information and analysis which they would have a duty to take up with the Minister. If we need yes-persons at the top, we need yes-persons all the way down the line. A fish rots from the head, as the old Chinese proverb would have it.

Read Gittins’ article in full here.

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