CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

18 October 1999

Mr Brendan Butler SC,
Chairman, Criminal Justice Commission

The Effect of Public Service Politicisation

Thank you for the comments on Public Service politicisation in your letter of 11/10/99, in response to my suggestions about the Internet casino licence investigations [via a copy to CJC of a letter to the QAO]. You noted that the politicisation issue is complex, important and beyond the CJC's present resources.

I should like to offer more thoughts on the complexity of politicisation (which probably makes it very difficult for the CJC to address, even given more resources) and on its importance.

The Complexity of Politicisation

The issue's complexity can be illustrated by considering the Public Service's strategic capability. The latter can be described simplistically as an understanding of external ideas and events to foresee their impact, and the ability to ensure adequate preparations for such impacts. Such a capability is clearly very significant in a period of rapid change.

The Public Service's strategic capability is seen as very important by the present Government - according to a recent letter from the Premier's Chief of Staff, Mr Rob Whiddon. That letter was sent as his response to an observer's suggestion that strategic capability 'has disappeared in all government departments - and will not re-appear with the types of people who are being recruited' (1).

Unfortunately, despite the good intentions which the Government may have, politicised senior staffing must tend to eliminate real strategic capability (2), because:

However any investigation by (say) the CJC would be most unlikely to show the effect of politicisation on the professional competence of the Public Service, because (like the political system) the knowledge and skills of any such investigator is likely to be as far below those of the 'pretenders', as the 'pretenders' are below more competent professionals. Differences between professionals' and pretenders' views may seem as mere matters of opinion to outsiders, and only professionals may be able to anticipate pretenders' poor performance until Government functions have actually failed (when it is years too late) (6).

The issue's complexity is further illustrated by the enclosed paper, Comments on 'Innovation: Queensland's Future'. This deals with a current desire of the State Government to create a capability for successful innovation in Queensland. This proposal is crucial to the Government's Smart State strategy, and vital to the community's economic welfare (7).

Despite the Government's probable good intentions, it is certain that the innovation program will (at best) create a costly 'toy' innovation support infrastructure for Ministers to play with, rather than one which is commercially relevant. The reasons for this are outlined in the enclosed comments. This lack of real-world impact reflects continued poor advice and implementation technique associated with the erosion of the Public Service's professional skill base due to politicisation. However such a problem is (intrinsically and always) hard to see, for persons who do not have deep knowledge and extensive experience in the subject area, because the nature of the traps which 'pretenders' fall into constantly changes.

The Importance of Politicisation to the CJC

The most serious effect of politically determined senior staffing on a professional Public Service is not the loss of its political neutrality, but rather the dominance of amateurism (8). This is a matter of public concern, but it is not directly a matter of official misconduct (9). Thus the key effect of politicisation seems to be outside the CJC's jurisdiction.

However Public Service weakness due to politicisation has important consequences in terms of matters which are within the CJC's ambit. Firstly a weak Public Service can do less to detect and resist overt official misconduct. Secondly, poor management of economic affairs translates into numerous communities and individuals who suffer the social effects of (relatively or absolutely) low incomes, which provides a breeding ground for crime. Thirdly, the Government becomes more susceptible to providing public resources to 'con-artists' who may offer plausible, but technically inadequate, proposals for dealing with issues of public concern. The dividing line between this and blatant official misconduct can be pretty hazy.

I hope that resources will eventually become available to the CJC to look into such questions.

[Signed John Craig]


1. See enclosure (dated 23/7/99) forwarded with a previous letter to the CJC on 4 August 1999

2. Enclosed letters to Mr Rob Whiddon (24 and 25/9/99) present this argument in more detail.

3. Politicisation can also reduce such capabilities indirectly (eg the observer cited in Note 1 appeared to blame the loss of strategic capability on the narrow world-view coming from a petty managerial focus - which is a secondary effect of politicisation through reducing skills).

4. The political system can not reliably tell who has real strategic capability / professional competence. For example, an individual may have impressively deep knowledge but little experience (or visa versa). Only other professionals can properly make such judgements. The problem is a little like one reported in Victoria in the 1980s, when government wanted to finance innovations. The committee charged with deciding who was worthy found that they lacked the information required to do so. They were dealing with proponents who were either 5th best in the world or 50th best. The difference was critical to the prospects of the innovators. Yet the committee's knowledge was only up to 500th best. Only people who were themselves in the top 20 best could make a proper decision.

5. The attachment to an enclosed letter to Mr Beattie and Mr Borbidge is a case study of this (see Autocratic Ignorance Purges the Public Service). This was one of hundreds (or thousands) of cases in the early 1990s where persons of solid professional competence were treated unjustly and incompetently. However most did not have enough evidence (or care enough about the public interest) to make an issue of it. In my case, I do have enough evidence (ie a demonstrable breakthrough in understanding economic development as a systemic issue; and real practical gains through applying this). However, as merit has not really been a required consideration in senior appointments in the 1990s, politicised officials have been able to prevent the evidence being considered.

6. Politicians (and the media) always find that administrative failures due to politicisation come as a nasty shock, though the problem may have been quite obvious to experienced observers.

7. Innovation is the most important route to creating economic value from knowledge. Australia has emphasised market oriented economic reform for 10-15 years, because of the need to shift towards higher value added activities. The failure of many individuals and regions to cope with the pressures thus created has led to political reactions, and instability. A stronger innovation capability in the community would allow these symptoms to be reduced. For Queensland the issue is particularly important, due to the low productivity of many of our economic specialities.

8. Politicisation tends to result in a few senior positions being filled by those with particular political alignments, and many positions being filled by those who are passively compliant with political directives because they lack any ability to put forward competent independent advice. The majority of a politicised Public Service is politically neutral, but amateurish rather than professional.

9. For example, the case referred to in Note 5 above, was apparently referred to the CJC in 1993 (according to advice from the Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee on 29/7/93). This advised that no evidence had been found of official misconduct - presumably a correct view. Ineptitude is not a crime. And there is no misconduct involved in not making appointments on the basis of merit, where there is no legislated requirement to do so - despite the resulting damage to the public interest.