CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email - sent 3/12/07

Mr Dennis Atkins,
Courier Mail.

Putting the 'Genie' of Public Service Professionalism Back into the 'Bottle'

The 'potential greatness' that you appear to perceive in Mr Rudd will remain wishful thinking unless the 'genie' of Public Service professionalism (which your recent article implies that he hopes to rely on) is put back into the bottle.

My interpretation of a recent article: It is wrong to see Kevin Rudd as Howard-lite. The ALP presented him as a risk-free option - and this will be so if Australia navigates difficult waters over the next 6-12 months. Economists such as John Edwards of HBSC doubt that sub-prime home-loan backwash will send US / UK into recession, and in any event the power of China and India will stop things getting out of hand. There was little policy debate in recent election. However the ALP did present some big plans, and Rudd could emerge as an activist Prime Minister. He is committed to doing things, especially reforming systems and developing programs to help people. Under the Goss Government he was so committed to reform that he alienated a large segment of the public service. Rudd will use Prime Minister's Department quite differently to Howard - under whom it had a controlling / micro-management style. The policy agenda was aimed only at government's immediate political agenda. Rudd will have his own agenda, but will also encourage bureaucrats to be creative. There is a search for ideas about how government can boost productivity in the economy. Swan wants Treasury to tackle whole-of-government issues - and to target social equity, workplace participation, tax transfers, welfare to work, IR reform, climate change, foreign / defence policy. Rudd wants accountability and openness across the public service (Atkins D., 'Potential greatness in Rudd', Courier Mail, 1-2/12/007)

You are right to say that Mr Rudd should not be described as 'Howard-lite'. In reality Mr Howard was 'Goss-lite', in that his Government made trendy changes to the Public Service like those of earlier state administrations, notably that of Mr Goss in Queensland (see Decay of Australian Public Administration). The Goss Government, in which Mr Rudd had a central role, created systems that were so centralized and politicised that that Government (and its successors) couldn't actually achieve much. The controlling / micro-management style that you ascribe to Mr Howard's Department of the Prime Minister apparently dominated Mr Rudd's Cabinet Office. The Public Service was alienated, not because of Mr Rudd's commitment to reform (as you suggested), but because of the ignorance, inexperience and abuses of power that characterised those whom the Goss Government allowed to control administration.

'Politicising' involves creating an operating environment in which public servants' career success is determined by political criteria. This results in agencies dominated by 'yes men' (ie those who rely on telling Ministers anything they want to hear to gain advancement).

It must take something like 20 years to get the 'genie' of real professionalism in Australia's Public Services back into the bottle in the event that a serious commitment is now made to do so. This would require protecting careers from political opportunism, and recreating systems of independent professional accountability (an immensely difficult task). Few current 'senior' public servants are likely to be able to lead this process.

As you noted, there was limited policy debate during the recent election campaign. Moreover the policy proposals put forward by the Rudd ALP seem in desperate need of a reality check, and the economic waters are likely to be more treacherous than you quoted John Edwards as suggesting (see Populism Trumps Electoral Victory),

Unfortunately, even if real reform were to start now, for many years Ministers will be more likely to be told whatever they want to hear than given practical / constructive suggestions (and they won't be able to tell the difference). Thus the long term political success that you hope for Mr Rudd is probably an impossible challenge.

Some suggestions about requirements for achieving both political and practical success are presented in Queensland's Next Successful Premier. The latter refers particularly to the Queensland situation, but has obvious national parallels. However renewal will probably have to start at a grass-roots level.


John Craig