CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

How Governments Conned Themselves by Eliminating 'Public' Services - email sent 4/12/14

Robert Gottleibsen
Business Spectator

Re: How the Public Service Conned Hockey, Business Spectator, 4/12/14

Your article suggested that ministers who rely on the public service for advice are being ‘conned’ – and that those who rely on their own policy capabilities are doing much better.

However Australia is struggling partly because of complex structural problems in government machinery. The problem does not result from inadequate public service advice but from diverse other factors such as a failure to: (a) think about what is needed to get advice that is truly in the ‘public’ interest; and (b) seek a ‘reality check’ on necessarily-simplistic political ideas and understandings.

My Interpretation of your article: One of the root causes of the Abbott Government’s problems and Australia’s falling growth rates are becoming apparent. The Senate quagmire is a problem – but it reflects the fact that ministers have become public service puppets. Those who don’t do their own research are in trouble. Ministers who are not overly influenced by the public service are doing a good job. However the Treasurer is in trouble because of his reliance on the Defence Materiel Organisation – which does not understand the importance of a local defence capability. Australian industry does have the capability to produce submarines competitively. The DMO was set up in 2000 and has presided over many defence equipment blunders. Former defence ministers have advised on how dangerous defence advice has become. The cover-up of abuse shows that problems are severe. The Treasurer has a lot of responsibility for the loss of motor industry jobs which will now be compounded by losses related to submarines. Budget problems could have been resolved by eliminating health and education duplication – but the public service had a different agenda. Similar mistakes were made in relation to the GP co-payment. Working independently has allowed a better result in relation to the NBN. Something similar is needed for Defence.

Australia’s system of government has never been perfect – and never will be perfect. However it’s problems have been compounded by public sector ‘reforms’ in the 1980s and 1990s that: (a) eliminated the notion of a professional / independent ‘public’ service because governments wanted to be told what they wanted to hear from ‘responsive’ services; (b) attempts to make government organisations more business-like in undertaking their primarily non-business-like functions (see The Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002 and Neglected Side Effects of National Competition Policies, 2004); and (c) enabling private interests to own and control functions that are subject to serious market failures (see Distorting / Corrupting Government?, 2002+).

The effect of those ‘reforms’ on Australia’s defence establishment has presumably been to create something like the US’s so-called ‘military industrial complex’ and Japan’s so-called ‘construction state’ – both of which appear to reflect the desires of ‘interests’ more than they reflects the ‘public’ interest.

Your article suggested that dysfunctions are now arising in government (eg in relation to defence). However serious dysfunctions have been increasingly obvious for a couple of decades in almost all functions (eg see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, 2001+). The issues that governments deal with are very complex – and these are inevitably simplified in political debates. Conclusions reached from a ‘political’ perspectives need to be complemented by: (a) the accumulated knowledge and experience of those involved in the practical implementation of existing / past policies / programs; (b) consideration of the complex relationships between any given policy / program area and other policies / programs; (c) a reasonably long term perspective; (d) advice that reflects the ‘public’ interest more than that of ‘interests’; and (e) insights gained from strategic research that may not be widely publicly known. The lack of such a ‘reality check’ on populist policies has led to incredibly bad government over the past decade (see On Populism, 2007+).

It is likely that governments are now being elected, not because their policy agendas are wonderful, but because the electorate desperately wants to see an end to incompetent government. However, unless and until the structural obstacles to effective government are addressed, ongoing incompetence is all that can be expected.

Suggestions about how Australia’s system of government might be made more effective were in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+), Australia's Next Successful Prime Minister (2012) and Strengthening Australia's Democracy (2014). Ministers who merely rely on their own policy capabilities are part of the problem, not the solution. Democratic politics and ‘public’ services need to be regarded as complementary parts of the process by which Australia as a whole ‘learns’.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig