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11 October 2005

Mr Stephen Coates

'Silence of the Damned'

I was interested in your reasonable observations about the lack of natural justice in disciplinary processes under the Public Service Act, and would like to provide a little feedback.

My interpretation of your article: Bundaberg Hospital inquiry suggests that public servants believe that if they complain they are damned. Forster inquiry has found that many staff give guarded information because they fear intimidation. Forster believes that there is a culture of intimidation in Queensland Health. But this is not limited to health. Ambulance staff were threatened by management if they spoke or met about roster changes. Blame may go to some managers, some ministers and to Public Service Act and Whistleblower Act. Discipline and whistle-blowing can go hand in hand. The grounds for disciple are not out of the ordinary (eg misconduct, carelessness, incompetence, contravention of directions, disgraceful behaviour) the methods of dealing with 'defendants' is poor. Those being disciplined must be given a hearing which complies with natural justice (ie be told about complaint, and be given opportunity to answer). But this can be complex, and most people do not understand their rights. But Public Service Act denies them legal representation. This puts them in unfair and unjust position. If public servants had not feared speaking out, problems associated with Bundaberg Hospital might have been less. Public Service Act was created by Borbidge Government, but current premier has not yet changed it - though he has said that he will protect Queensland Health whistle-blowers by changing the Public Service Act (Coates S.. 'Silence of the damned', Courier Mail, 29/7/05).

Unfortunately the problem seems more serious than your article suggested, because there is another legislated arrangement that denies natural justice to public servants. The simple fact is that there has been no requirement to seriously consider professional competence in making 'senior' appointments (see Ombudsman's Reasons). The latter outlines the Ombudsman's conclusion that it was legally wrong to take account of merit in a grievance about the making of a senior appointment, because appeals against SES appointments were banned by legislation. This situation clearly demolished not only the principle of natural justice but also the professional credibility of Queensland's entire Public Service.

The unfortunate consequence has been a Public Service overly dominated by cronies and 'yes men', and a lack of professional competency and credibility that is now likely to be a major factor in (a) administrative dysfunctions and (b) a 'senior' level obsession with (often unfair) disciplinary actions to ensure that the resulting problems are covered-up. Why this follows is suggested in more detail in Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission. However, as your article pointed out, the problem is not confined to Queensland Health. Numerous indicators that it is widespread are outlined in The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service.

Thus I submit that the problems your article mentioned can't be solved by changes to Public Service Act provisions related to the disciplinary process. Rather attention is needed to the overall governance arrangements for the Public Service generally, because it is these that can give rise to the 'need' to silence complaints through potentially-unfair disciplinary processes.

I would be interested in your reactions to my speculations.


John Craig


Email from Stephen Coates 12/10/05

I was pointing to just one facet of difficulties within the public service. As to overall governance, your views, to my mind, may well be accepted by the public generally although I say this without proof of surveys and other corroborative information. Suffice to say that in my view, a non-independent public service management structure may meet the needs of politics, which may at times be different from the traditional role of the public service. The departure of Steve Buckland as Health DG is evidence of this. Further, the Whistle Blowers Act is somewhat deficient in its protective role. By the way, what is your organization about?




Email to Stephen Coates 12/10/05

Thanks for feedback. I agree, obviously, with your conclusion that there is more wrong with the governance of the Public Service than defects in disciplinary procedures. While I have no information about the capabilities of individual Queensland Health staff, I agree that Buckland's departure demonstrates that the political system now demands unquestioning compliance, but not that this is a sensible attitude. Furthermore I think that you are right that the points I have been making for the past 10-15 years are finally being publicly considered. The dysfunctions that have followed from the political system's assumption that mainly what it needs from the Public Service is political compliance and the adoption of business-like methods have become all too obvious.

What I am on about is outlined on About CPDS. By way of background I note that I was employed for 25 years on strategic policy R&D within Coordinator General's and Premier's Departments - and in doing this quickly discovered that there was a always a huge gap (eg 10-15 years) between the emergence of new ideas amongst leading practitioners elsewhere and the awareness of the issue in the public domain in Queensland. By way of example, I note that Queensland's Smart State programs reflect an agenda that (a) was obviously required in the early 1980s, but was not a political imperative until the mid-late 1990s and (b) has been appallingly managed. In the 1980s I devoted a lot of effort to stimulating the emergence of policy capabilities within Queensland agencies (so as to help close the gap) and was credited with having forced the Premier's Department to establish such competencies for economic development the first time in the state's history. Another issue this showed up was the lack of corresponding competencies within civil institutions as outlined in Queensland's Weak Parliament. In recent years I have been concentrating on stimulating the development of stronger understanding of economic and public administration and strategic research capabilities within various civil institutions - an activity which has had some national / international (as well as local) dimensions.

I am well aware of the basis on which Queensland's political establishment thinks that it only needs political compliance from the Public Service (as well as business-like techniques to improve efficiency and lower costs / taxes). I have done a great deal of work over the past decade or so to document dysfunctions which have resulted in part from this assumption (such as, but by no means limited to, those in Families Department, Energex, and Queensland Health). The document I referred to, The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, contains many indicators. An analysis of why the political system's assumptions about what it needs from the Public Service seem inadequate is attempted in The Decay of Australian Public Administration. The resulting transformation of many agencies into politicised pseudo-businesses, which are virtually incapable of contributing to effective government, is only one dimension of the overall difficulties now confronting politicians (see Australia's Governance Crisis), while the breakdown of machinery for planning and development of infrastructure is a specific example of what has resulted from the political system's views about what it needs from the Public Service (see Infrastructure Constraints on Australia's Economy).

I also suspect that, in an environment in which the present state government is disintegrating, the Opposition parties are likely to be developing policies behind closed doors on the basis of the principle you stated (as well as assuming that private provision of infrastructure and public services is the key to fixing what ails government in Queensland). If so it would pay them to consider a broader range of inputs. While a political mandate would make it possible politically to get away with simplistic policies for a couple of (very uncomfortable) years, the weaknesses in government institutions are cumulative and will not be corrected until it is recognized that governing is not like running a business and that the complexities involved are well beyond the ability of the political system to monitor so that the support of a professional Public Service is required.


John Craig