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Email 15/11/07

Email sent 15/11/07

Mr Paul Kelly,
c/- The Australian

Smart Casual Kevin: 'Learning' in and 'Outgrowing' the Queensland Public Service?

I have to point out that in a recent article you recorded claims about Queensland's Public Service under the Goss Government that were unbalanced and distorted.

My interpretation of part of your article:... For three years Kevin Rudd was Goss's chief of staff, and then head of the Cabinet Office from 1991 to 1995. Rudd had to cope with culture shock - with the first state Labor Government in 30 years and entrenched public service views. Rudd pushes people, and won't be satisfied with second rate performance. Rudd was not a traditional bureaucrat, but worked proactively with Goss on policies. Rudd learned from this how to run a government. He learned about strategy, priorities and policy-making. He saw the flaws of the federal system at ground level - and the need for reform. Rudd then decided on a career in politics - which surprised Goss. Having outgrown the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Rudd had now outgrown the public service. Public servants can't engage public in embracing a proposition. .. (Kelly P., 'Smart Casual Kevin, Weekend Australian Magazine 27-28/10/07)

There is more to the question of how political appointees such as Mr Rudd 'learned' in and 'outgrew' the Queensland Public Service. Moreover nothing of much value could be learned about 'how to run a government' from involvement in that ineffectual administration.

These points are addressed further below.


John Craig

'Learning' in and 'Outgrowing' the Queensland Public Service?

Claims in your 'Smart Casual Kevin' article malign a politically-neglected but generally professional body of people.

As I noted in earlier comments on your article about the federal ALP's approach to the Public Service, the 'culture' shock that the Queensland Public Service experienced was not that those who the Goss Government installed to control administration would not accept 'second rate performance' but rather that third rate performance by political cronies was defended by brutal repression of anyone who might have done better.

The Queensland Public Service in 1989 was (by and large) in favour of reform - not 'entrenched in public service views'. Few had political allegiances. There was 'dead wood' but: (a) not everyone in every organisation needs to be a star; (b) there are jobs that need to be done by non-stars; and (c) the 'reform' process did not eliminate the 'dead-wood' but rather promoted them - so that there would be no one to expose outlandish claims by political cronies about their knowledge and skills.

In functions I am most familiar with some staff, who arguably were developing leading-edge policy, were eliminated under politically favoured 'senior' administrators who were simply ignorant of the issues involved. Though the latter's trendy policy rhetoric conned politicians and the media, it was often neither realistic nor up-to-date. But questioning their competence was verbotten. Merit was legislatively eliminated as a serious consideration in making 'senior' appointments. Ministers refused to listen to anyone who tried to point out what was really happening. Building a political power base seemed to be the focus, with government effectiveness given little weight.

Predictably, this produced a system of government that couldn't actually achieve much - so that after a very few years not only was the Public Service alienated, but so apparently was the public and much of the ALP.

Matthew Franklin has recently pointed out that Mr Rudd's performance as a bureaucrat in Queensland, which very few are aware of, causes some of those who do know what happened to question voting for the ALP (see 'Rudd's history with Goss turns some voters off', Australian, 2/11/07).

However respondents to the Online Opinion survey he cited over-emphasised Mr Rudd's role in the Goss Government. He may have had a central position, but he could never have been responsible for all abuses of power and administrative failures that characterised that unfortunate Government (and those who inherited the machinery it created). For example, there were significant structural defects in Queensland's governance that led to SE Queensland's water supply crisis. Dubious decisions in this area by the Goss Government, in which Mr Rudd may or may not have played a part, were symptoms of those structural defects, not the sole problem.

Moreover there were many 'senior' administrators under the Goss Government who seemed to find it expedient to 'outgrow' the Public Service in the mid 1990s - and apparently leveraged their political connections into influential jobs elsewhere, leaving others to try (unfortunately none yet successfully) to clean up the mess.

In relation to the claims that your article records about Mr Rudd's career, all I suggest is that there is limited value in learning about how to run a government and about strategy, priorities, policy making etc. in an ineffectual administration (see What is the Value of 'High Level Public Service Experience' in a Bad Government?).

This is significant because there is something disturbingly familiar about proposals for federal administrative changes in 2007 which refer to: (a) restoring a Westminster style; (b) hacking into the public service - though the reason given this time is different; and (c) centralizing power. There seems to be no recognition that highly centralized governance leads to failures for essentially the same reason that central economic planning can't work (see Why Control Freaks Don't Achieve Much).

These observations are based on involvement in strategic policy R&D in the Queensland Public Service from the early 1970s and an advocacy role in relation to administrative reform and economic development in the 1980s. This initially seemed to be valued by some charged with change under the Goss Government - a reaction that reversed when it was argued, on the basis of experience, that the favoured 'demolish it all and start again' approach to administrative 'reform' could never work.

PS: A contact with knowledge of DFAT has speculated that the public might benefit from learning how Mr Rudd happened to quickly 'outgrow' that organisation also.