CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

(from 14-7-01)     

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting a loss of relevant professional competencies in Queensland's and other Public Services over the past decade and that this is being translated into policy and practical failures. 

Queensland Queensland

The process whereby an attempt at Public Service reform in the early 1990s severely eroded the quality of practical support with policy advice and implementation in Queensland's case is suggested in some detail in Towards Good Government in Queensland.

Towards Good Government in Queensland is an analysis of how a poorly conceived and incompetently managed process of public service 'reform' eroded the professional capabilities needed to implement the Goss Government's widely supported policy agenda. It explained the problem in terms of: the effect of mis-understanding of the causes of the Whitlam Government’s problems by Peter Wilenski who developed an influential theory of how to reform bureaucracies; the effect of the ‘Yes Minister’ school of populist public administration theory; managerialism; the adoption of a 'commercial' focus in public administration which undermined government's ability to really 'govern'; and the inability of starry-eyed and inexperienced ‘reformers’ to understand that reality is more complex than their political rhetoric - and that, without the tacit knowledge that experience brings, ‘reform’ could not lead to practical outcomes. Attachment A referred to the views of diverse observers in terms such as: lack of reform philosophy; putting in a political fix; severely reducing top level competencies; etc

Factors which contributed to the emergence of populist and amateurish public administration in Queensland also included:

  • pre-existing weaknesses along the lines outlined in Structural Incompetence and SEQ's Water Supply Crisis- eg the defects in governance that typically arises in regions that are affected by 'curse' of rich natural resources; unworkable federal financial imbalances; and political neglect of public administration;
  • a general lack of independent institutions able to provide competent and applied advice to to the political system about public or economic policy issues (see Queensland's Weak Parliament);
  • legislation the Goss administration introduced to Parliament that prevent appeals against SES appointments. This action (a) ensured that professional competence did not really have to be considered in filling 'senior' positions and (b) effectively outlawed 'natural justice' - the ideal of a fair hearing before judgment is passed (see Ombudsman's Interpretation);
  • some overt politicisation - noting that ex-ALP members alleged in evidence to the Shepherdson inquiry into the rorting culture in the ALP's AWU faction (which was the dominant faction under the Goss Government) that 'a chance to land public service and ministerial office jobs awaited those who complied with AWU faction requests' (Griffith C., 'Inquiry told of jobs for the boys', Courier Mail, 12/10/00). (See Submission to Shepherdson Inquiry; and Section 5 of Queensland's Challenge);
  • the introduction of trendy but dysfunctional methods for staff management. For example:
    • complex procedures were introduced for staff selection (at the same time as there was an explosive growth of human resource management staffs). This involved formal 'selection criteria' rather than the judgement of experienced staff - and apparently resulted in advancement by those most skilled at politically-correct form-filling, rather than those who might be good at their jobs;
    • formal techniques for evaluating public service positions (developed by Cullen Egan and Dell) were introduced. The latter placed great value on the number of staff a position supervised, but gave little weight to the complexity of the role. This may have suited operations involving the production of goods and services, but it seemed unsuited for government because of the intrinsic importance of complex knowledge and experience to its core roles. The present writer was advised by several experienced observers (though did not personally experience this) that the effect was for force a change in the organisation of some functions, and also to increase organisational complexity and costs. Whereas functions might have been performed by half a dozen staff (some highly experienced and highly paid and some low paid trainees) the CED assessment required that only those supervising large staffs could gain the remuneration that those handling a complex workload had earned. Thus instead of having a few staff, some of whom dealt with complex issues in their heads, there was a need to reorganise work so that managers supervised large staffs each of whom dealt with small parts of the complex tasks.

It can also be noted that:

  • the creation in Queensland of machinery to 'keep government honest' in the era following the 1980s' Fitzgerald inquiry was described by one expert observer as creating the most complex system of government in the Western world [1]. About 15 years later this was seen to require scaling back because the resulting 'red tape' made government ineffective [1];
  • Queensland was seen in 2007 to have blown its best opportunity to embrace wide-ranging reform after the Fitzgerald inquiry -  probably because Queensland's fairly brutal style of politics reasserted itself. [1]

  • Management theorists were (in 2002) beginning to explore similar phenomena (ie disastrous strategic decisions about staffing and policy due to heavy-handed quick-fix management of complex situations) in other contexts (see articles by Gottleibsen and by Sennett in Strategic Issues: Management);
  • the business equivalent of politicisation (ie focusing corporate managements solely on shareholders' simplistic criteria by providing stock options) is now increasingly discredited - because of concerns such as (a) manipulation of earnings to maximize share prices - which have led to a loss of investor confidence and (b) bad investment decisions to meet the uninformed expectations of financial markets [1]. Likewise its has been argued that:
    • the US stock market was mesmerized in the 1990s by a dazzling number of deals - which obscured the lack of corporate commitment to solid long term management (Collins L. 'How style beat substance',  FR,  27/6/02).
    • AMP's massive financial losses in 2002-03 have been seen as partly due to sacking or ignoring staff who had long corporate memories [1]
    • difficulties facing NAB have also been seen to be due to loss of key executive talent (Grigg A., 'How NAB drained its talent pool.", FR, 12/3/04)
  • how a senior level focus on simplistic (eg political / shareholder) criteria can also lead to management abuses is considered in About the Review of Public Sector Enterprise Bargaining.
  • even without politicisation there seems to be a serious deficiency in the top-level competencies available in Australian organizations - as illustrated by:
    • the difficulty that expatriate Australians, with skills gained through international experience, reportedly have in gaining employment here - because their abilities are often seen as a threat by their potential bosses [1] ;
    • the perceived inability of most businesses to conceive or implement the strategic initiatives needed to develop competitive advantages or new export markets [1];
  • the suggestion that tyranny arises from the absolutism, inflexibility, intolerance, arrogance and blindness of intellectuals who meddle in politics despite their incompetence and irresponsibility may also be noted in seeking to explain how intended 'reform' turned into a minor tyranny. 

The behind-the-scenes damage done by this 'reform' process provided an explanation for what later became widely known as the 'Queensland effect' (ie an unforeseen electoral loss due to a protest vote).

An experienced national political commentator agreed (in a written personal communication) that the large (and often) unexpected electoral backlashes that the Greiner, Goss and Kennett governments experienced probably arose because political leaders were seen to be arrogant when their policy ideas did not translate into practical benefits because of a lack of capable support.

An interstate parallel: The difficulties experienced by Victoria's Cain / Kirner Governments (which had eroded the professional competence of their Public Service by a similar process to that later used by the Goss Government before attempting to drive strategic economic change) were described in The Fall of the House of Cain (see Attachment C of Towards Good Government in Queensland)

A national parallel: The electoral reversal suffered in early 2001 by the Howard Government (arguably because of inept implementation of quite pedestrian tax policies) may be another example of this (noting the claim that the ATO lost a great deal of its skill base in a reorganization process - Gottleibson R., 'Dispatches from the front make sad reading', The Australian, 14/5/01).

Universities: Managerialism (the idea that managers know more than those they manage) is seen to have destroyed the quality of Australian universities. [1]

Bi-partisan support has existed for the politicisation of senior Public Service appointments in Queensland (see Franklin M., 'Only four survive Beattie's reshuffle', Courier Mail, 17/4/99).

An aside: The idea of 'information asymmetries' (which the Institution of Engineers used in a submission about Queensland's Professional Engineers Act) provides an explanation of why politicisation of senior Public Service positions can be disastrous. It is equivalent to the client deciding who should be a qualified aeronautical engineer or doctor. Moreover:

  • the role of the senior Public Service is to complement the focus that elected representatives have on the popularity of policy, by providing advice and implementation support to ensure that policy is likely to be effective in practice;
  • such support requires both a depth of knowledge and long experience - and it is very difficult / impossible for non-experts to assess how competent a senior public servant is in providing such support; because
    • government is not really like a business. A business produces and distributes specific goods and services. Governments also do this, but it is not their primary function. Their main task is 'governing' - ie creating a framework for a community's social and economic activities. And success in 'governing' requires knowledge and wisdom about the functioning of complex social, economic, environmental and administrative systems - not just about the effectiveness of a single organisation in producing goods and services. Thus the required knowledge and wisdom (which takes many years to acquire) is quite different to that which is likely to be acquired by leaders in other fields.
    • political debate is necessarily conducted in terms of simplified concepts - yet the systems that are addressed are always more complex. For example, political attention may focus on 5 issues of current concern, and there may be 95 other issues that are also being addressed by a government agency. If the latter is re-structured and re-staffed purely on the basis of what is currently of political concern, the agency will not only lose its ability to deal with most of its functions but also its ability to handle new issues as they arise (as this requires broad knowledge and experience).  Effective public administration is impossible unless there is machinery to prevent over- simplified political understandings over-riding other considerations in making staff appointments. Over-simplification is illustrated by an inquiry conducted into problems in Queensland's health system. Public outrage about medical malpractice in one hospital led to an inquiry which focused mainly on that situation, though this was only one symptom of much broader problems (see Intended Submission to Queensland Health System Inquiries) 

If the community's elected representatives could easily tell whose professional advice they needed to listen to, there would basically be no need for such advisers.

An ex-Labor ministerial advisor stated in 2000 that problems affecting Queensland's Public Service which existed under the Goss and Borbidge Governments remained [1].

There have been public assertions along that lines that in Queensland "the rock of public service constancy has been eroded by a process of gradual politicisation from the top" (Sweetman T. 'Going round in circles', Sunday Mail, 24/12/00), and there have also been periodic calls to re-establish a permanent professional Public Service (eg ''Bring back apolitical bureaucrats'' (editorial) and ''Call to protect bureaucrats'', Courier Mail, 29/3/00).

The Queensland Public Sector Union claimed that increased ministerial bullying was a symptom of the breakdown of the Westminster tradition which afforded the public service more respect than it gets now (Johnstone C. 'Driven to distraction', Courier Mail, 15/6/02) (See CPDS Comments which includes an Outline of the Breakdown of the Westminster System and the Growth of Public Service Bullying)

A very senior Queensland public servant was quoted in 2001 as suggesting that the major requirement for running a large organization was to create the 'illusion' of direction (McKew M. The Bulletin, 17/7/01)

Comment: it appears that the failure to develop vision / direction which is firmly grounded in practical reality (rather than 'illusory') is a significant cause of the difficulties Queensland now faces.

An author of Encouraging Ethics and Challenging Corruption, Noel Preston, suggested that the Beattie Government risked politicizing the public service. "There are too many appointments ... of people with whom the government is comfortable rather than being challenged" (Johnstone C., 'Moral of the story is to behave ethically', CM,  5/10/02)

Improved accountability by Queensland's senior public servants is needed in view of poor performance of some agencies (King M. 'Scrutiny lacking at the top', CM, 17/2/04).

Overt political pressure emerged for a particular public servant, the Director of Public Prosecutions, to resign - on the basis of a perceived error due to ignorance [1].

Comment: Such pressure on a public official 'politicizes' their role - even if such public concerns were to be valid because of the effect of earlier political manipulation of the Public Service (see also Proposed Inquiry into Office of Director of Public Prosecutions Lacks Credibility).

A lack of relevant competence (and also apparent cronyism) has been alleged in appointments to the boards of state-owned electricity companies [1, 2, 3]. Failures in developing the state's electricity network were ascribed to the culture  in GOCs (a 'feudal hierarchy' where all that was required was to 'tick the boxes'), and a lack of independent oversight over $20bn in state assets [1]. A former ALP minister appeared to see loyalty to mates as an important factor in making appointments to government boards [1

Queensland government agencies have been described as even more risk averse in their procurement practices than their counterparts elsewhere [1].

Comment: A lack of relevant technical competence is a likely contributor to risk aversion in procurement

A controversial appointment of a person with apparent strong government connections was made to the position of Information Commissioner (responsible for FOI) after her predecessor made proposals to release information (about investment incentives to business and the actions of the Attorney General) which the government disagreed with [1]. The fact that she then enrolled for a beginner's course in FOI legislation led to criticism that the merit selection system was being compromised [1]. Queensland's reputation in dealing with FOI was said to be being damaged [1]. Subsequent changes to FOI arrangements were said to make it impossible to get some information, and to double the time allowed to give reasons for denial of information [ 1]. 

Problems revealed by reviews of Queensland Health and of Families Department indicated a serious public sector wide problem. There is a need for a new review of the bureaucracy as it has become party-politicized and unresponsive [1]

The concept of public service independence of the public service, fearless and frank advice, autonomy of thought, constructive criticism have all disappeared [1]

Queensland's public service has systemic problems - which are revealed in a lack of skills and the resulting incompetence of some agencies [1]

Many of Queensland's problems date back to 1989, when the inexperienced Goss government did a lot of harm to the public service. It listened to academic theorists, economic rationalists and administrative amateurs. Governments do not have to listen, but the impartial advice of a tenured professional public service should be available and not be politically manipulated or tampered with. This is one of the most fundamental issues now facing Queensland [1]

Under the mantle of Fitzgerald reforms the Goss administration put the 'fix' into government in Queensland in favour of Labor and increased centralised control, media management, continued executive dominance of Queensland unicameral legislature and containment of corruption watchdogs such as the CJC. The PSMC (which was not a recommendation of Fitzgerald) was run by those with close ALP connections, and used as an instrument of increased executive and partisan control of the public service. Replacement of many senior officials with those having Labor connections smacked of revenge rather than reform. [1]

The right of academics / officials to speak their minds without retribution is tenuous in Queensland. The culture of conformity must end in the interests of better public debate.  Queensland suffers from a lack of independent institutions [1]

Community groups have expressed concern about the retribution apparently meted out to a public official who tried to act professionally in the public interest  [1]

The retiring head of the Crime and Misconduct Commission suggested that public servants have lost their independence and objectivity - and that long periods in office have undermined the Westminster tradition of fiercely independent advice regardless of incumbency [1] Some public servants see their roles as fulfilling the wishes of ministers, rather than providing impartial advice [1]

A 1999 submission to a Senate Inquiry into Catchment Management by the Whistleblower's Action Group argued that Queensland had an unofficial policy of not enforcing environmental regulations, and would penalise professional staff who 'blew the whistle' [1]

Concern has also been expressed about the quality of appointments to the judicial system

  • members of Queensland's judiciary have expressed concern about a lack of professional merit in Supreme Court appointments (eg Monk S. 'Judge blasts 'political' appointees', Courier Mail, 15/11/99; and 'Gibbs wins peer support' Sunday Mail, 20/2/00);
  • Queensland's Chief Justice produced an account of requirements for professional merit in judicial appointments ('Equal Justice for all', Courier Mail, 16/2/00). The Chief Justice presented a paper 'Integrity and Independence' to the Association of Australian Magistrates in June 2002 - dealing with the subject of judicial independence;
  • the quality of many judicial appointments under the Beattie Government has been called into question [1, 2, 3];
  • In NSW there have been calls for an expert panel to advise on judicial appointments (Merritt C., 'Call to rethink judicial selection', Financial Review, 24/3/00);
  • Queensland's system that allows the Attorney General, rather than the Director of Public prosecutions, to appeal against sentences was seen as 'scary' by interstate observers (Solomon D 'Appeal system politicized', CM,  4/10/02)

  • reforms is needed in the way judges are appointed to remove secrecy and perceptions of political bias [1]

  • neither of two new District Court appointments were on a short list prepared by Chief justice [1]

  • the overturning of the conviction of the former Chief Magistrate cast serious doubt on the administration of justice in Queensland because of (a) inadequate actions by judicial officers, and (b) ineptitude resulting from politicisation of judicial positions [1]

A case has been present for a method to guard against judicial appointments for political reasons and ensure that judges are appointed on the basis of merit [1]

Evidence of Dysfunctions

There is evidence of severe practical difficulties facing Queensland, including and partly resulting from difficulties in the Public Service.

A general account of the predicament facing Queensland at the start of the 21st century is presented in  Queensland's Challenge (February 2001) - in which Section 6 deals with symptoms affecting the Public Service. 'Queensland's Ongoing Challenges' presents updated information about numerous indicators as they emerge.

Of particular significant are the many published articles that have suggested widespread failures in public administration, including:

  • Queensland has faced large cost overruns on various major public works - which might result from a lack of any competent intermediary between companies seeking profits and the providers of public funds [1]
  • large backlogs in infrastructure investment have emerged [1];
  • there is increasing doubt over the Queensland Government's ability to deliver basic services and infrastructure [1];
  • mining companies perceive serious problems in Queensland's infrastructure decision making chain [1];

  • management of water resources [1, 2, 3]; land clearing [1] and the Great Barrier Reef [1] are ineffectual;
  • attempts to better manage SEQ growth are constrained by perceived lack of leadership in a key agency (Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Water). Critics suggested that public service has serious skills shortages, problems in recruitment and retention and unhappy employees.  [1]
  • a water supply crisis that developed in SE Queensland in 2006 was seen to be due to years of inaction and lack of planning [1];
  • regulation related to minerals and energy is hopeless [1] - [though this accounts for a substantial share of the state's exports and contributes heavily to government revenue]
  • policy related to energy is outdated [1];
  • QFleet made an error in judgment by a lot of large vehicles, which now can not be sold without collapsing the used-car market [1];

  • the Integrated Planning Act was: disastrously conceived; made no contribution to achieving real outcomes; and created a mass of procedures and processes which added to legal disputation and costs while allowing the state to escape responsibility for coordinating local planning  [1];
  • feasibility studies into ways to deal with serious transport problems in SEQ are assessed only in terms of political advantage, rather than in terms of what is best for transport [1]. RACQ viewed transport plans for SE Queensland (of both government and opposition) as nonsense [1];
  • plans for upgrading a major highway were for a facility which it was later realized would be overloaded before it was completed [1];
  • regulatory red tape in Queensland were claimed to have prevented Australia gaining two years of peak-price coal exports [1];
  • there seem to be problems in the regulation of land titles [1]
  • a BCA study concluded that Queensland was the worst state in terms of red tape affecting business [1];
  • there was a widespread negative reaction to proposals in 2002 for education reform (see About Education Reform)
  • ;
  • a leaked government report revealed widespread internal and external concern about the Smart State programs [1]

  • Queensland's health administration suffers: excessive bureaucracy; under-funding and under-spending; workplace bullying; incomprehension of policy issues; and a primary focus on public relations [1]. Moreover:
    • Doctors and hospital administrators are said to fear for their jobs if they speak out about chronic hospital under-funding (affecting staff and beds) [1], and the Department has been said to attack professional staff who report problems [1].
    • Medical practitioners are forced to break Health Code by publicly complaining about medical deficiencies in hospitals because Queensland Health will not listen [1].
    • Problems are seen to arise in maintaining the quality of regional hospitals because administrators know nothing about health services and are concerned only with cost cutting [1].
    • Medical staff are campaigning against unsafe working hours (up to 24 hour shifts).
    • Problems are seen to arise from understaffing, high staff turnover, poor management and lack of penalties when hospitals put patients and staff at risk [1].
    • Overseas trained doctors have been recruited to regional hospitals, some of whom lack medical competence [1].
    • The Health Minister accepted that the health system was racked by a culture of intimidation and secrecy [1], and agreed that state hospitals could not be guaranteed to be safe [1].
    • There has been a culture in Queensland Health of damage control - that involves ignoring facts to protect from being seen to have problems. When politicians and their executives do not want to hear bad news they try to by-pass independent minded managers [1].
    • it was suggested in 2005 that clinical problems and deceptive responses to them had been caused by senior staff in Queensland Health over the previous 12-15 years, and that many doctors left because the organization became a dysfunctional and abusive employer [1]
    • Too much emphasis on process (rather than product) has caused problems in health system.[1]
  • a 'blitz' was mounted to clear a backlog of patients waiting for elective surgery [1
    • [Comment: this may have benefited the individuals concerned by does not seem like an effective long-term approach to managing a health system. And it emerged in the Bundaberg Hospital Inquiry that funding provided meet elective surgery quotas encouraged hospital administrators to allow 'Dr Death' to keep operating despite concerns about his work [1]];
  • the AMA suggested that the management of Queensland Health had 'disintegrated' and that it should be taken over [1];
  • Queensland Government's $6.5bn program to address problems in health system has not proven effective - and there are constant difficulties associated with shortage of doctors. [1]
  • Queensland's mental health system is in a state of chronic crisis [1]';
  • large numbers of problems are seen to be emerging in Queensland's education system in Queensland (eg related to asbestos in schools; curriculum; discipline; literacy; classroom sizes) [1]
  • there seemed to be a history of child abuse cover-ups in Queensland [1];
  • a report by the Children's Commission which dealt with problems associated with Queensland's Families Department 'was not a depiction of a professional organization' (Wenham M., 'A costly culture',  Courier Mail,  30/1/02). Furthermore:
    • various attempts to reform this department failed [1, 2]
    • the department's cultural problems were ascribed partly to unsatisfactory reform [1];
    • problems had been recognized for years, but though government spent more money staff at all levels were not equipped with the information / skills to make decisions in the best interests of children [1];
    • a one-time insider described a 'them and us' syndrome with staff blamed for what are systemic problems [1], and ascribed the problem to a management structure in which few have relevant experience, qualifications or practical exposure [1]  
    • A CMC inquiry was told by research staff that the situation was chaotic with poor management [1]
    • concern has been expressed about the adequacy of new proposals for child protection reform [1, 2, 3 - and see also Review of Child Protection Proposals]
    • despite reforms (eg creation of new Department of Child Safety), child abuse cases are increasing rapidly, nothing is done to prevent abuse and the new Department is operating on an old model - according to a not-for-profit agency [1]
  • a crisis similar to that affecting the Families Department is seen to affect the Office of the Adult Guardian [1, 2];
  • very serious deficiencies have been seen to exist in Queensland's prison system [1, 2]
  • the is massive growth in demand for social support services which is overwhelming current systems (see outline of 2003 conference on Is the Smart State a Just State?);
  • current machinery for dealing with homelessness is inadequate [1];
  • the whole framework of Queensland's social services is inadequate [1];
  • Current systems for dealing with sexual abuse of aboriginal children as are being totally overwhelmed by the problems [1]
  • the electricity supply system has been reduced to third world status - with blackouts due to an inability to meet demands [1]. Though Queensland's electricity utilities have been corporatised, Energex appears to: have paid too little attention to managing risks; be out of touch with its customer base; and be expected to cross-subsidize consumers in other regions [1]. Problems in the electricity industry were not limited to under-investment in maintenance and networks, but to the failure of systems, processes and people [1]. Accountability problems were seen to have emerged in Energex because of cronyism [1]. A power plant touted as pioneering renewable energy has emerged as a flop. [1]
  • QRail is experiencing significant difficulties and has the potential to be the next Energex [1]
  • there is widespread concern about the inability of Building Services Authority to take enforcement action when problems arise in building renovations [1]
  • local authorities have concern about what they perceive to be:
    • a failure to seriously address the development of transport / road systems [1];
    • inadequacies of economic strategies in relation to the needs of regions [1];
    • 'cost shifting' from state / federal governments to local authorities [1]
  • concerns about corruption within the Public Service are emerging [1, 2];
  • there are indications of the possible emergence of a 'revolving door' through which staff involved in providing public financing of companies gain senior positions in those firms [1]
  • a magistrate perceived shoddy management in Queensland Transport [1];
  • Main Road's minister was obliged to stand down an expert consultant he had appointed hours earlier [1];
  • senior public servants who witnessed an alleged ministerial attempt to bribe the Palm Island council did not report this to CMC, though they probably had a duty to do so [1]
  • Queensland's Premier was said to have 'lost control of the detail' in public statements which involved distortions of facts (Franklin M. 'Beattie: What's his salt worth?', Courier Mail,  27/7/02).

Comment: A lack of adequate public service support is the most probable explanation when a minister makes mistakes about details. And it is not hard to imagine how this could be so .....

An anecdote: An experienced mid-rank public servant pointed out in mid 2002 that passing information to a minister's office was no longer a matter of getting clearance from one senior officer. As the department's senior-level knowledge and skill base had been lost, there was no confidence in such judgments so information to the minister's office had to be checked through 6-7 layers of 'senior' management many of whom had no understanding of the technical issues. The process took 2 months and periodically resulted in changes which had legal implications whose significance was not appreciated].  

  • Queensland's Premier has to apologize frequently for administrative failures [1];
  • Commerce Queensland argued for a wide-ranging audit of the Public Service [1];
  • Queensland's premier has argued that some public servants deliberately undermine the implementation of legislation [1];
  • Premier's Department established an Implementation Unit apparently because of concern about unsatisfactory follow-up on government decisions (see Queensland's 'Administrative Desperation' Unit);
  • Queensland government has been described as 'error prone' [1] and better at announcements than at delivery [1]
  • the arts sector has been suggested to be grants' dependent and bureaucratically minded, because public officials who head up Arts Queensland are required to act as government ciphers rather than expressing their expertise. Defining government requirements which the arts community must prove they measure up to (a 'tick boxes' mentality stifles innovation.[1]
  • movie makers have labelled Queensland's Film and TV commission as the most horrible / brutal / misguided / incompetent / unfair funding body in Australia [1]

  • SEQ's public transport system is in crisis - as passenger numbers  have pushed trains and busses beyond breaking point [1]

There is also concern about a lack of public accountability through:

  • government abuse of freedom of information processes (see Freedom of Information) - including commercial-in-confidence claims [1]. FOI has been seen as a key to improving accountability [1];
  • a very poor FOI record [1];
  • refusal to disclose to Parliament what incentives had been paid to businesses  [1];
  • a lack of accountability by entities that review administrative actions [1];
  • efforts to reduce the independence of: Ombudsman [1]; CJC [1]; and Auditor General [1, 2]
  • dubious accounting practices [1];
  • a lack of effective consultation on policy issues [1, 2];
  • ministerial refusal to discuss corruption exposed in Public Works [1];
  • apparent lack of serious attention to widespread allegations of corruption affecting racing industry (see Racing). An inquiry was claimed by external observers to be a lost opportunity because government set narrow terms of reference [1], though those involved in the inquiry ascribed problems to personalities and differences of opinion [1];
  • starving the media of information about health; punishing people who reveal problems rather than fixing them; and refusing to answer legitimate questions in parliament [1]
  • appointment of a person to a royal commission who had (a) an involvement in an organization which provided public relations advice to an organization which was a key focus of the inquiry [1], and (b) a role in raising funds for an ALP election campaign [1];
  • Queensland premier has been accused of acting like an African dictator over proposed changes to FOI Act that would restrict access to any information prepared for use in, or obtained during, sensitive investigations [1].
  • through inquires into dysfunctions in Queensland Health, senior bureaucrats emerged as cogs in a political machine driven by Premier's Department with regular stops at Cabinet with veiled information [1]

  • cover-ups have been alleged (but still subject to investigation) in relation to programs to eradicate fire ants [1]

  • secrecy about the state of repair-disrepair of government schools - which implies that there could be a serious problem [1]

Allegations have also emerged about unethical behaviour, bullying, secretiveness, 'shooting the messenger', vindictiveness against those expressing dissent and deception (see Style of Government). In particular:

  • the 'winegate' affair was seen to have been the result of a government approach to crisis management based on: (a) concealing information (b) blaming scapegoats and (c) finally apologizing [1]
  • public service managers have been alleged to use compulsory psychiatric assessment as a means to bully staff [1, 2, 3];
  • there has been a prevailing culture of harassment in the public service (starting at the top with Director Generals') of staff who pointed out problems. This ruined lives and careers. There is a huge gap between theory and practice in terms of  principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, diligence and respect for law [1]
  • Queensland's Public Advocate suggested that the community was afraid to express dissent or make constructive suggestions to democratic institutions for fear of retribution [1];
  • the ethical obligations of journalists to preserve confidentiality was said to be undermined by forcing them to reveal information about whistle-blowers [1];
  • a minister changed her explanation of events [1] and was suspected of having asked others to lie to save her from political embarrassment [1];
  •  a 'Labor mates' network seemed to dominate key positions in Queensland's electricity system [1] ;
  • a public servant was sacked apparently for activities for which on the same day he received a commendation from the minister and the premier [1];
  • there have been numerous expressions of concern about bullying within the EPA [1]
  • hospital staff could not tell what they knew about a doctor's incompetence because of fear of retribution [1]
  • responsibility for bullying was seen to start at the top [1]
  • concerns about bullying are widespread throughout the Public Service [1];
  • unions are concerned that staff were scapegoated for a train crash, because (though human error was part of the problem) systems which should have been in place to guard against this were not developed [1];
  • in response to suggestions that staff should tell ministers what they needed to know, the QPCU (union) suggested that staff were afraid to do so because they would be branded troublemakers - thus government was only told what it wanted to hear [1]
  • parents and former students were not informed of a link between a teacher's death and an asbestos-riddled classroom [1]
  • Bundaberg Hospital inquiry suggests that if public servants complain they are damned. The processes for discipline puts public servants in an unfair position so that they are afraid to speak out. There is a need to change the Public Service Act. [1]

  • legislation was introduced to parliament which made it no longer a criminal offence to lie to a Parliamentary committee [1]

  • Queensland's premier, who has often been compared with Bjelke Peterson (as party patriarch, 'face' of government; and homespun 'populism'), is now appearing as an arrogant, dismissive and even autocratic leader who treats any opposition with distain. Parliamentary processes are manipulated and opponents ridiculed [1]
  • Claims of transparency and accountability by the state government are a sham -  institutional arrangements (eg whistleblower protection, FOI, Auditor General, Ombudsman, Public Sector Ethics Act) just give the 'illusion' of transparency while masking bad management and corruption' [1]
  • Queensland's premier espouses openness of government in public, but secretly does everything possible to manipulate the media. FOI laws are a mockery. .[1]
  • there was concern when a senior public servant, heavily involved in development of policies related to major investment projects, gained a job in a firm making such investments  [1]

A recent immigrant from Zimbabwe described Queensland's current administration as behaving much like that of a typical African republic [personal communication].

The present author's attempts to analyse major areas of dysfunctional administration include:

Indicators that reform of the criminal justice system may have left a situation just as suspect as had existed in the 1980s are presented in Reform of Queensland Institutions or Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?

Governments generally

Australian governments generally

Some similar observations have emerged in relation to Australian governments generally.

In discussing the need for reform of the ALP it was argued that rather than continuing the decades' old practice of giving insiders a smooth ride, it would be desirable to base decisions on merit (Blair T. 'Back to the future for Labor's reformers',  Australian,  15/8/02);

The Premiers of NSW and Victoria have warned others that governments tend to make mistakes in their first year in office due to inexperience. In particular the Carr Government sacked top public servants who were the top talents who could have helped it (Gottleibsen R. 'How empty seats tell of sorry politics',  Australian,  15/2/02)

Severe constraints are seen nationally to exist on public servants in making decisions or giving advice that is contrary to the wishes of ministers (Harris T. 'Bureaucrats self-protection', Financial Review,  15/1/02)

It has been pointed out that "as Public Services have been contracted and politicised in Australia over recent decades the task of developing policy ideas has been left to policy institutes or think tanks" (Quiggan J. 'Free speech sits ill with a free market', Financial Review, 27/9/01)

Comment: the significance of this is that Queensland has traditionally had virtually NO policy institutes or think tanks that are competent and applied - see Queensland's Weak Parliament

Across the board and growing deficiencies have been said to exist in the provision of all public services - despite very rapid increases in government revenues [1]

Comment: this problem can not be entirely attributed to problems in Public Service professionalism (or to a lack of borrowing which the author of the referenced article preferred) as governments have been trying to use 'business-like' methods (which suit simple / separable goods and services) for the much more complex goods and services which governments deal with.

Little policy development on Australia's major structural problems is likely to be done in government. Politicians are now entirely poll driven - which makes it hard to contemplate reforms that would be unpopular in some places. Band-aid solutions which defer the problem are preferred. And politicisation of the public service means that advisers tell politicians what they want to hear consistent with their polling. There is a desperate need for a resurgence of 'think tanks' outside government (Hewson J., 'Thinking in a vacuum',  FR,  2/8/02)

A knowledgeable observer has suggested that Australia used to be free of politicisation - but "senior public service positions are now awarded to political apparatchiks or at least subject to political vetting, and we have seen repeated attacks on other institutions of public trust - such as Auditors General. The danger of a party political High Court is more distant but growing". (Quiggin J., 'Florida debacle has lessons for Australia', Financial Review, 21/12/00);

It has been suggested that de-politicisation of appointments to statutory offices is one (of 5) key requirements for promoting effective democracy in Australia (Harris T 'A wish list for democracy', FR, 3/12/02).

Commonwealth rejects notion that senior public servants are reluctant to provide advice to ministers. Shergold, head of PM's Department, made this case. But this overlooks: state audit reports which points out that putting senior staff on contracts that can be instantly cancelled has costs; defense personnel were reluctant to speak about 'children overboard' affair; departments were silent about calamitous IT outsourcing; education research mildly critical of government policy was cut from a report; research by Bureau of Labour Market Research led to its demise; advice critical of ethanol subsidies had to be provided anonymously; Australian embassies frequently censor reports to ensure that views expressed by foreign governments do not upset the Howard Government. Such problems are not confined to Commonwealth - eg problems in NSW child protection system (due to out of control demand pressures) are in private comments but not in annual reports (Harris T., 'Non-advice most welcome', FR, 9/9/03)

In discussing the ALP's Knowledge Nation Task Force (Jones B. 'Can we make Australia a Knowledge Nation?', Address at Macquarie University, 27/4/01) it was suggested that:
  • current obsessions with management and the consequent downgrading of specific expertise is at its worst in the public service;
  • concentrating on the 'how' problems has taken away the 'why' and 'what' problems;
  • the view that experts would distort policy making led to an emphasis on unbiased 'managers'. It was assumed that it was only necessary to get the management right to eliminate all problems. This was accompanied by the loss of 'frank and fearless' advice - through the taking of a 'whole of government' approach which suppressed specific concerns because of government's overall strategy and electoral prospects;
  • there is a severe reaction in the UK to this - with crises in privatised rail systems, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease all seen to be due to the hollowing out of expertise, the increase in simple 'management' and a decline in effective accountability.

[An aside: traditional concerns about the feasibility of effective government from Canberra given its isolation (especially from the world of business) also need to be considered in relation to the technical competence of the Australian Public Service (ie because of problems of regional 'inbreeding' and lack of 'real world' social contacts). Clearly those traditional concerns would be increased because of the rate of change which has been occurring, and is continuing, in Australia]

Australia's corruption-fighting watchdogs have been seen to have been politicized [1]

SA Auditor general has raised concerns about inability of some agencies to manage and audit government accounts because of a lack of relevant skills [1]

There is a perception that regulatory complexity (which imposes huge costs on business) is the result of a public service obsessed with protecting politicians backsides [1]

[Comment: Any public servant's career can be adversely affected by being seen to challenge political control over policy - and especially now that the protection which was provided by the Westminster tradition of an independent and professional public service has been removed - strict adherence to formal procedures is the only safe career option. This situation (which in Queensland has predictably re-created a Public Service dominated by traditional clerical paper-shufflers) is undoubtedly a factor in business concerns about red-tape].

Public services no longer know whether they have any role apart from unquestioningly carrying out political instructions - a situation which can lead to abuses of power [1]

Laws to protect public servants who spoke the truth were changed in the 1980s and 1990s - because of bipartisan agreement that public service was not 'responsive' enough. Now public servants are only extensions of government - and are totally political. Many changes were made by Labor Government eg systemic changes which removed the legal foundations that made it realistic to give frank and fearless advice. Academics suggest that reforms were based on assumption that (a) public institutions were not subject to market disciples and were self seeking - and that they were now more less efficient and client focused and (b) managerialist changes were about ministers asserting that they were in control. However in the name of political responsiveness too many public officials second guess the advice their political masters want to hear - which results in a culture of defensiveness, blame-shifting and a lack of responsibility [1]

More transparency is seen to be needed in the selection of judges [1]

It is time to scrap the practice whereby key public appointments are treated as gifts by whoever happens to be in power. There is bipartisan support for an independent Reserve Bank - but no process in place to ensure this. [1]

There is a need for a more bipartisan approach to appointment of public officials - as there have been too many controversial appointments. Governments have long breached the walls of public service independence and merit.  This undercuts prestige, expertise and trust of key institutions. [1]

Conflict of interest concerns are arising when senior public servants leap directly into private enterprise [1]

Evidence of Dysfunctions

There is evidence of severe practical difficulties facing governments generally similar to those in Queensland.

There is evidence that matters critical to Australia's national strategic interests are being poorly evaluated  (see Inadequate Intelligence and Strategic Assessment).

Because of inadequacies in infrastructure development and uncertainties about what had been done with large increases in public revenues, political leaders have been described as being good at winning elections - but at little else [1]

Debate on competition law issues has been clouded by politics and populism that risks undermining the integrity of competition regulation in Australia (Edgehill K 'Competition and politics don't mix', FR, 27/5/03)

Australia's health-care system is seen to be a shambles [1]

In the absence of any concrete proposals a Council Of Australian Government meeting in June 2005 to discuss (amongst other things) serious problems in infrastructure and health systems established 5 committees [1]

Sydney's cross city tunnel has become a symbol of the NSW government's inability to handle a crisis [1]

The failure of state administrations to properly manage their functions has been seen in the community as reasons that they should be abolished [1]

Leighton Holding CEO (Wal King) argued that the processes and planning within government organisations need to be dramatically improved [1]



Similar difficulties appear to have affected the Commonwealth Government in particular - perhaps for reasons suggested in Decay of Australian Public Administration.  The latter highlights the similarity between a process of central public sector management reportedly implemented by the federal government in 2000, and that applied by the Goss Government which led to failures as outlined above

Changes over the past decade are seen to have led to an inability to provide 'frank and fearless advice' (Steketee M. 'Downsized mandarins are losing their clout', Australian, 22/6/01).

Comment on the effect on political neutrality has been made in relation to appointments by the Commonwealth Government (eg Harris T., 'Yes, yes, yes Minister', Financial Review, 31/12/99; and Fist S., 'Dangers of politicisation', Australian, 24/4/01)), However:

Professor Richard Mulgan (ANU) argued that loss of professional competence was more important than loss of neutrality, in 'Politicisation of Senior Appointments in the Australian Public Service', Australia Journal of Public Administration, September 1998.

Widespread symptoms of a loss of professionalism in the Department of Finance were reported including: hollowing democracy from within; ruthless suppression of dissent; totalitarianism; frantic mindless activity; crisis management; sloppiness; lack of staff development; favoritism; narcissistic admiration of leaders rather than policy dialogue [1]

Some discussions between the Coalition and Labor Parties about ensuring an experienced bureaucracy were reported (McGregor R., 'Shaking the Canberra Tree', Australian, 10/1/00).

Some work was being done by the Institution of Engineers on erosion of technical / engineering skills in the Commonwealth Public Service (eg Brook S., 'Faulty engineering formula for disasters', Australian 21/1/00). And other trade and professional bodies have expressed similar concerns (eg in Breusch J., 'Public Service has lost expertise', Financial Review, 11/1/00).

Senior (national) political figures are reportedly concerned about the damage that politicisation has wreaked on national and state Public Services - and may seek to restore 'an independent public service in which senior bureaucrats can give honest advice without fearing the sack' (Oakes L., 'Carnell knowledge', The Bulletin, 17/10/00);

It has been suggested that the present Commonwealth Government has pushed Public Service politicisation to unheard of heights and that the person seen as most likely become head of the Prime Minister's Department in the event of future ALP electoral success seems convinced of the vital importance of the professional renewal of the Public Service (see Barker G. 'The long shadow of Michael Costello', Financial Review, 10-11/3/01). Similar views of the intent of a future ALP government were put forward in Kelly P. 'Mandarins won't feel the squeeze', Australian, 4/4/01)


  • "the Howard Government has relentlessly politicised and therefore damaged the defence forces and now intelligence services" (Sheridan G. 'Misuse is damaging our spies',  Australian,  14/2/02 - referring to the use for domestic political purposes of information obtained by the Defence Signals Directorate of communications in which a domestic organization was involved)  
  • there was a systemic failure of three key departments to ensure that a key fact in a highly politically charged environment was clarified. The public service has either complied with, or connived at, the exploitation of an error. Compliance and conformism stifles the ability of intelligent / hardworking individuals to act outside the constraints of the herd. The result is providing government with what they want rather than with what they need. The solution must lie in a re-appreciation of the role of the public service - and of its relationship with governments (Behm A. 'Mandarins and the truth',  Australian,  18/2/02)
  • deception of the public and inaction by officials on many occasions has been alleged in relation to the Tampa issue [1]
  • it has been claimed that a future ALP government would give the public service more job security and return to the idea of a career service [1]
  • the federal Opposition leader has identified a need to restore traditional separation between politics and the public service [1], a policy which was given particular emphasis for the Defense Department [1];
  • the government seems to attack dissenters and also the supporters of dissenters. The PM insisted that the head of the Federal Police change his mind. It is embarrassing to see leading public servants treated as naughty school-boys. Intelligence suggesting problems in East Timor had been banned because it would embarrass Australia's relationship with Indonesia. Others have been punished for telling the truth - while those who make problems go away have been rewarded (Duffy M 'Dare to dissent and expect humiliation with prejudice', CM, 17/4/04)
  • Department of Foreign Affairs - which used to feature lively debate - is now tightly managed and compliant [1]
  • a previous head of the public service ruled by intimidation and creating a climate of fear in which Public Servants dare not put their heads up [1]

It has been suggested that the perception of politicisation of Australia's intelligence service is irrelevant, as the real problem is that persons with general administrative or policy backgrounds in senior roles are unable to understand or accept the valid conclusions reached by those with specialized professional competencies [1]

Critics see Howard Government as intimidating public servants to ensure unquestioning compliance - and eroding service's ability to 'test' government policies. This results from four changes: ALP decision to remove permanency and apply contracts; high court decision that secretaries can be terminated at pleasure of ministers; growth in role and authority of unaccountable ministerial staff; and tendency to centralise policy in PM's office [1].

The selection process for Australia day honours has been suggested to have been corrupted by nepotism and cronyism (Parnell S., 'Libs accused of favouring party faithful, CM, 27/1/03).

"... here is the Catch 22 of our bureaucrats: wise and sometimes robust advise is required to create complex and effective policy, but it isn't always being delivered ... because many public servants fear the consequences ...." (Murphy K. 'Yes Minister - its hard to tell the truth',  Financial Review,  16-17/2/02)

There can now be a conflict between the career success of public servants and telling the truth to senate inquiries (Harris T. 'Public servants not serving the truth', FR,  18/6/02)

"The government is to blame for the shameless politicisation of the public service. It fired off the warning shots within days of coming to office with the unprecedented dismissal of six department secretaries  ... and it has used the armed forces for flag-waving political purposes and seduced senior officers into political service" ('Public Service Politicised', Australian,  4/3/02 - quoting Paul Keating's Manning Clark Lecture on 3/3/02 at the National Library')

An aside: "Unprecedented?" - see Franklin M., 'Only four survive Beattie's reshuffle', Courier Mail, 17/4/99

The Government is being seen to politicize key institutions which had been valued for their expertise and independence. There is most concern about the Public Service, Defense High Command, Governor Generalate, High Court.  Australia will be vulnerable in a globalised world without the institutions that protect its interests and culture. Howard did not start the attacks on these institutions [1]

It has been suggested (with particular reference to the Immigration Department) that unquestioning bureaucrats are exercising blind authority on behalf of the public and that the results are being concealed from public view [1, 2].

A risk has been seen to Australia's official collective memory (through archives, libraries and museums) though political interference [1]

The public service has become the government of the day service [1]

A need has been seen to reverse the changes in the legal basis of the public service which Labor Governments introduced that make it impossible for public servants to give 'frank and fearless' advice [1]

Governments were seen as unable to come up with commonsense solutions to problems, perhaps because public servants are professional 'butt-coverers' for their political masters [1].

Head of the PM's Department was seen to have ruled bureaucracy by intimidation and culture of fear, and emphasized, not impartiality but, commitment to the government's cause [1]

Head of PM's department constantly denies that federal public service is politicised - which many ex public servants claim that it is [1]

Scandals associated with AWB's bribery in Iraq were seen as a result of PM's treatment of public service and military as an integral part of political process [1]

Problems in federal public service go beyond lack of managerial talent. Cost of projects has become irrelevant, and agencies simply do what they are told (ie the game is purely political). Many talented people are leaving public services, because managers are focused on managing up the chain of command, rather than marshalling resources to achieve effective outcomes. Briefing ministers is the outcome, rather than part of the process. Other constraints include: much higher pay in private sector; and the need to move to Canberra which has life-style costs. Canberra is just a large company town - and is susceptible to problems of group think' [1]

Evidence of Dysfunctions

There is evidence of practical difficulties facing governments generally similar to those in Queensland.

The federally funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute criticized Defence Department management and suggested that further money not be allocated until it can be well spent (Barker G., 'Attacks more likely than not', FR, 29/11/02)

Numerous serious errors have been made by the Immigration Department [1, 2]

Governments were seen as unable to come up with commonsense solutions to problems, perhaps because public servants are professional 'butt-coverers' for their political masters [1].

Claims for workplace stress are increasing dramatically in federal public service [1]

It was suggested that the federal government does not seem to have coherent policy. It seems to be in bedlam rather than control [1].

Suggestions have emerged of inadequate performance by the new Federal Government elected in late 2007:

  • the government's target of 20% electricity production from renewable sources by 2020 is poor policy [1];
  • the government got off to a very weak start [1];

International Parallels

It has been suggested that the World Bank should be a major institution for dealing with problems of international poverty - yet it appears to have lost its capability due to weaknesses at the top. Problems are seen to arise from failures of the CEO (involving temper, and orientation to the latest developmental fads). Attempts to make the Bank friendlier to NGOs resulted in the loss of its analytical capability - and thus in the World Bank becoming less relevant. CEO gained his position through contacts. There was no open competition in making the appointment. Loyalty is the main virtue the CEO seeks in staff. There was a massive overhaul of senior staff - resulting in what is now very weak senior management. People who are knowledgeable or capable of making judgments are not wanted.  Many are concerned about the new developmental framework that has been adopted. (Fiddler S. 'Who's minding the bank?', Financial Review, 1-2/9/01)  

Also: The CEO surveyed reasons for poor internal morale, despite the World Bank's good external perception. The responses pointed towards himself - and to a climate of fear at the bank. The CEO did not practice the virtues he preached. He did not welcome criticism, or tolerate dissent. Managers have learned that it serves them well to just agree with the CEO - so he is thus isolated from reality. ('The World Bank's dysfunctional family', ibid).

CPDS Comment: The above description makes the World Bank's situation sound very much like Queensland's as a result of events in the early 1990s (as recorded in Towards Good Government in Queensland). What happens could perhaps have been: 

  • a well-connected CEO is politically appointed, one who speaks the rhetoric of trendy reforms, but who lacks experience and deep knowledge about what those reforms actually mean;
  • a senior management overhaul brutally eliminates the ability to give practical effect to the desired reform agenda - because (a) there is only superficial understanding of the technical issues involved and (b) the political skills of the inept tended always to have to be much greater than those who were more technically competent; 
  • an organization emerges which favours 'yes men' and cronies - and is hostile to professionals; 
  • morale and organizational performance decline - for reasons which the CEO and external observers can't understand; and
  • the reform agenda is eventually discredited (though it might have been useful if effectively implemented).

Serious failures in strategy were reported to have affected the United States in relation to the Vietnam war - partly because the political system was fed a diet of analyses which were biased towards what it was believed they wanted to hear - according to Ellsberg who had insider access and was commissioned by the Pentagon to evaluate top-level US decision processes [1]. Poor intelligence in relation to Iraq has also been seen to have emerged because responses obtained appeared to depend heavily on what questions were asked [1]. The US's system of politically appointing senior officials (which has been a major feature of the Decay of Australian Public Administration in the 1990s - and which was presumably emulated by the Blair Government which was influenced by the the 'success' of Goss administration reforms) is likely to be a significant factor in this phenomenon.

Similarly inappropriate conclusions about Iraq's WMD capabilities have been seen to have emerged in UK through ignoring expert advice [1]

Senior civil servants are no longer regarded as useful sources of advice - which is a problem as the success of democratic models (and the reason they did not turn into 'mob-ocracy which opponents feared when universal suffrage was granted) was because of  the political and cultural role of the senior civil servants  [1]