CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email sent 12/6/10

Dr Linda Colley,
Institute for Social Science Research,
University of Queensland

Turning a Blind Eye to Incompetence and Abuse of Power

My attention was recently drawn to your 2004 paper, Redundancy in the Queensland Public Service 1959-1999, and I should like to mention some sources that might shed additional light on what appears to be the primary conclusion of your paper, namely that:

"This combination of the change in the nature of redundancy, and the more accessible provisions, provides scope for redundancy to become a means of political dismissal." (Abstract, p2)

Your paper's primary concern seemed to be with the history and impact of redundancy arrangements in the Queensland public sector - especially in the light of the Westminster tradition's emphasis on the need for a career service, if public servants are to be able to properly 'advise, assist, and to some extent influence,' elected governments. Concerning this your paper suggested that:

"A crisis in British administration led to the landmark Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service in 1853, which provided a blueprint for the transformation from a patronage system to a career service model. The Report noted that government:

could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers possessing sufficient independence, character, ability, and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent, influence, those who are from time to time set over them. (my emphasis)

Public services were reformed to foster a politically neutral career service in line with Westminster traditions. The major elements of the career service model included: standardised conditions of employment; administration by an independent agency; merit-based recruitment through competitive examination; merit-based promotion; a code of rights and protections; and adherence to the principles of a career service (such as employment security). These conventions were adopted in Australia, and were the standard model for public service employment until the 1980s (Caiden 1965).

The traditional requirement for officers to be permanent and independent recognised the political nature of the public service work environment, and was a major difference from private sector employment relations. Tenure was not just a good employment practice, but also an important element of an integrated career service model, essential for effective policy development and service delivery in a political environment. Employment security enabled a professional and impartial public service to provide frank and fearless advice without fear of dismissal. A nonpartisan public service was able to serve any government, and did not need to be dismissed upon a change of government. Significant appeal processes assisted to protect against political dismissal, and ensure that dismissal was only for purposes of misconduct or inefficiency, and not for political or other inappropriate grounds. Writers in the 1980s and 1990s generally agreed that employment structures had made it difficult to remove public service employees (Gardner 1993:138; McCallum 1984:23; McCarry 1988; McCarry 1994; Wilenski 1986:205)" (pp 3-4)

Your paper assembled a lot of information about the redundancy practices of various Queensland governments. However, it focused on the number of redundancies, rather than on the effect on public sector competence.

Thus it did not explore the unprecedented and unequalled loss of competence that resulted when (as you noted) redundancies were targeted against "senior and middle management levels" during the review and restructuring undertaken after 1989 by the Goss Government. [Your paper's comments on the latter are reproduced below].

The targeted group embodied the knowledge and skill base of Queensland's public sector and, when the new Goss Government acted on the advice of inexperienced review teams, a great deal of critically important human capital was eliminated. This loss of hard-won professional competencies (combined with: (a) the overly-centralised and virtually-unworkable machinery of government then established by ill-informed political advisers; and (b) Queensland's lack of civil institutions able to provide competent advice about the nature and functions of government) laid the foundations for the ongoing administrative failures and crises that later governments have, so far, failed to recover from (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, from 2001, and Queensland's Worst Government?, 2005).

As your paper noted "the combination of industrial unrest, the dissatisfaction of public servants, and concerns regarding corruption, contributed to the election of the Goss Government, which promised administrative, electoral and Parliamentary reform, included extensive review and restructuring of departments".

In fact the 'dissatisfaction of public servants' that you referred to had been so great that many had made determined efforts to develop forward looking capabilities. However in the review and restructuring process 'senior' positions were first filled by individuals with often limited professional competencies. This seemed unintentional (and perhaps due to reliance on 'paper' qualifications that did not prove relevant experience) as the government apparently wanted to reform the Public Service on a professional basis - it just did not have the competence to know what competencies were needed (see The Effect of Public Service Politicisation, 1999 and The Effect of Politicisation, 2001, note 36). The latter, amongst other things, note that if governments could tell what professional support they need, they would not need it. After an inauspicious beginning the remainder of the restaffing process degenerated into unexpectedly rapid career progress for 'yes men' and the squeezing out of the most capable staff (ironically often those most likely to support the government's reformist goals) who would have been able to expose the limitations of their new 'seniors'. This abusive process was aided by the enactment of legislation which (according to the Ombudsman's Office) made it unnecessary to seriously consider professional merit in making 'senior' appointments.

The point to note is that it seemed to be (mainly though not only) naive good intentions and a political desire to promote merit in the Public Service that actually produced the reverse outcome - because political leaders did not know what they did not know, or consider that it might be of value. This is presumably one reason that the Northcote-Trevelyan Report had encouraged the shift from a patronage system of public service to a career system.

Numerous independent observations regarding the process of review and restructuring under the Goss administration are outlined in Some Comments on the Public Sector and on Reform (being Attachment A to my submission to the ALP's 1996 election review panel concerning the review and restructuring process, Towards Goods Government in Queensland). By way of background I note that an abuse of natural justice (Note 39) that I was subjected to (ie an explicit refusal by the Premier's Department under the Goss administration to allow professional merit to be considered in relation to the filling of a senior policy R&D position) was apparently seen as a test of the Westminster tradition by one observer (see McDermott P., `Tenure of Senior Queensland Public Servants', Australian Journal of Public Administration, March 1993).

Might I respectfully suggest that if you have another opportunity to write about redundancy in the Queensland public service, it would be useful to introduce other points of view to balance the claims of those with central roles in the amateurish Goss Government. Despite widespread criticism, the latter apparently still turn a blind eye to their involvement in what needs to be professionally recognised as a classic case of reform failure (eg see All the talk about Kevin Rudd , 23/6/07 and Interview - Wayne Goss, 3/3/08). Moreover there has long been bipartisan support for politicisation of Queensland's public service (see Politicisation Lowers Public Service Standards and Performance) and, in the absence of professional and public understanding of the potentially disastrous consequences, there is a real risk that similar damage could be done again.

It is my contention that a stronger and more realistic role for the social sciences and humanities is vital if Australian's are to successfully meet their emerging challenges (see A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010)

John Craig

Extract for reference from Redundancy in the Queensland Public Service 1959-1999, 2004

"The 1988 Act under the Goss Labor Government 1989-1996

By 1989, the combination of industrial unrest, the dissatisfaction of public servants, and concerns regarding corruption, contributed to the election of the Goss Government, which promised administrative, electoral and Parliamentary reform, included extensive review and restructuring of departments (Goss 1989). Before the 1989 election, Goss promised that: no retrenchments will arise as a result of this restructuring under a Goss government and any net decline in the number of public service positions dedicated to a particular area will be met by natural attrition (Goss 1989).

However, the Public Sector Management Commission (PSMC) did not rescind, but rather extended, the retrenchment provisions under the PSME Act. The departmental reviews usually resulted in consolidation of functions, flattening of structures and removal of excessive layers of management, and in some cases spilling of senior management positions (Davis 1995:108). Labor claimed that the large-scale restructuring highlighted the inadequacies in previous redundancy management policies, and addressed these through Public Sector Legislation Amendment Act 1991 and the Policy for the Management of Redundancy in the Queensland Public Sector (PSMC 1992; QPD 22 May 1991:7752-3,8094).

In 1991, Chief Executives were given greater flexibility to offer early retirement during major organisational change, and employees were given more options to sever their career service employment. The retrenchment provision was extended to include situations when the duties were performed by another officer, and when an officer elected not to participate in redeployment or retraining:

28. Retrenchment. Where the Governor is satisfied that -

(a) an officer no longer holds an office, or the office held by an officer is surplus to the requirements of the departments concerned because-

(i) the duties of the office are no longer required; or(ii) the duties of the office are being performed by the holder of another office; and

(b) it is not practicable to retrain or redeploy the officer or the officer notifies the chief executive of the department concerned, in writing, that the officer elects not to be retrained or redeployed; and

(c) redundancy arrangements under the regulations or the standards, or approved by the Governor in Council, have been complied with in relation to the officer. he may terminate the services of the officer by way of retrenchment in accordance with those redundancy arrangements.

These changes facilitated increased redundancy during the first term of the Goss Government (Davis 1993:iii). However, Goss avoided the large-scale redundancies that characterised reform in other states, partly due to a favourable budget position, and partly due to a relatively small public sector that could absorb some displaced employees to service an expanding population base (Davis 1995:126).

The earlier redundancy provisions before 1988 only applied to surplus positions, and appear to have been utilised in times of economic crisis, with subsequent opportunity for re-employment as economic circumstances improved. Conversely, the legislative changes since 1988 were generally introduced in response to new circumstances and requirements, such as the increasing transfer of services to statutory authorities under the National Party, or the organisational restructuring under the Goss Government. They also removed the earlier provision for reemployment when circumstances improved.

Further changes occurred in 1994, when the Policy for the Management of Redundancy was replaced with the new Standard for Staffing Options to Manage Organisational Change (SOMOC). This standard emphasised the Government's preference of retaining its employees throughout organisational change, but once all alternatives had been considered, a chief executive could determine officers to be surplus, and decide whether to refer them to the redeployment unit or offer a Voluntary Early Retirement package (VERs). The previous policy had only allowed redundancy in the case of surplus positions, while this policy allowed for redundancy in the case of surplus people such as when a position was re-graded or re-located.

While no data is available, the redundancies in this period were largely focused on senior and perhaps middle management levels, as these were the levels targeted by the departmental reviews."