CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email dated 12/1/08

Peter Botsman

Comments on 'Kevin, Julia, Wayne: A Very Weak Start'

Some feedback follows about the thoughts in your recent working paper (Kevin, Julia, Wayne: A Very Weak Start) on making the new Commonwealth Government effective.

There is nothing particularly unusual about politicians believing their own rhetoric and getting out-of-touch. In particular Mr Howard was NOT immune to that phenomenon (contrary to the assertion in your article). His government, like others in recent years, surrounded itself with cronies and 'yes men' and eventually apparently lost touch with the fact that many people did not share its assumptions (see Decay of Australian Public Administration which suggests how this can happen after several years incubation as a result of Public Service politicisation and centralization / politicisation of the process of policy development).

However getting out of touch with the community is not the only risk that governments face. They also can be out-of-touch with reality. Their policies and programs may be wildly popular with the community, but unworkable. The Rudd Government seems likely to be in deep trouble on that score. Its election policies were simply populist, and the machinery of federal government has been badly politicised (ie come to be dominated by 'yes men' and to suffer a lack of substantive professional competencies). Thus there is no way to get an adequate 'reality check' on political ideologies.

Contrary to the suggestion in your article, it is improbable that the new Commonwealth Government has been captured by a 'yes man' Public Service. Rather both the Government and the Public Service are presumably waiting for someone to put the real substance into the Government's policy agenda that your article advocated.

Also contrary to the assertion in your article, this weakness is unlikely to be fixed by ensuring greater 'public' accountability in the Public Service (ie ensuring that they say 'Yes sir' faster, and with heartfelt sincerity). What is required is serious professional accountability - and this means (a) protecting the careers of senior officials from political whim and (b) some genuinely professional machinery to control the process of Public Service appointments. If this were put in place then in 10-15 years Australians would gain a Public Service that was able to help give practical substance to the ideas of their political representatives.

Governing is complex (for reasons like those suggested in Governing is not just Running a Large Business). Politics necessarily takes an overly simplistic view of those complexities. This works so long as there is a professional Public Service to bridge the gap. The Goss Government in Queensland failed because its advisers were unaware of this problem - ie they adopted an autocratic approach to the implementation of half-baked policy ideas. The Rudd Government in Canberra seems to be falling into a quite similar trap (eg assuming that a centralised politically-driven policy process will be able come up with solutions to problems in Australia's federal system - see 'One big Labor party': Great Fun but there will be a Hangover). They also are likely to be defeated by the limits to their rationality.


John Craig