CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary
Email +

Email sent 10 March 2008

Ms Madonna King,
Courier Mail

Getting More from the Public Service

I should like to provide feedback concerning a recent article, in which you lamented the lack of contribution to national policy innovation and other deficiencies currently associated with Public Services.

My interpretation of your article: Problems in the Wollongong City Council demonstrates both the power of public servants, and the scope for misbehaviour. But state and federal public services are also susceptible to a lack of accountability and biased decision making. The Prime Minister has suggested that the public service is not the brains trust of national innovation. But it should be, given its huge resources. Innovative and creative suggestions should be its core role. This is impossible while senior positions are politicised, and DGs provide ministers with advice they expect to hear, rather than independent counsel. In Queensland, DGs are on contracts, and able to be dismissed with four weeks notice. Public service advice to ministers is always secret - but should be publicly accessible. This won't happen while it is assumed that good ideas have to be dreamed up in ministers' offices. If the public service were genuinely apolitical (which would firstly require fixed term contracts, and that removal required reasons which were subject to judicial review) then there would be no need for Kevin Rudd's 2020 summit. The combined brains of those in departments like Queensland Treasury and Education should allow innovative policies to emerge. But their ideas are never heard, because everything focuses on elected governments. The problem could be fixed by (a) making public servants accountable (through secure tenures and publishing their advice) and (b) expecting public servants to help develop policy rather than merely implement it (King M., 'Rot sets in with Yes Minister', Courier Mail, 8-9/3/08)

The issues that your article raised are important - and complex. I should like to submit for your consideration, that:

  • the problem in Wollongong City Council that your article referred to probably does not have just have a Public Service origin (see attached email, Detoxifying NSW Labor, which includes reference to an article by a NSW observer);
  • politicisation of public services probably makes them more likely to countenance corruption (eg Davis B., `Public Service Culture May Foster Fraudsters', Australian, 24/7/95). Queensland does not seem to be immune from this disease any more than Western Australia has been and New South Wales now seems to be (see Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?);
  • as your article noted, politicisation adversely affects the ability of Public Services to contribute to policy development (eg because it eliminates knowledge and skills whose importance was not recognised, and results dominance by 'yes men'). It also inhibits effective implementation - see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service; and On Populism;
  • while the Prime Minister is correct in suggesting that the Public Service can not be the brains trust of national innovation, ideas that a formulated without its input are certain to be inadequate - and this is one of the reasons that the 2020 Summit is likely to be ineffective (see Talkfest Magic?). However, as the latter commentary suggests, generating the ideas that are the basis for 'national innovation' requires many different types of support to the political system - not just a more effective Public Service. Moreover, ideas are 'a dime a dozen' and are seldom the key factor in innovation. In commercial innovation, for example, it is understanding of the practical / market relevance of new ideas and the skills to manage implementation which are 95% of the problem;
  • in Queensland, though most of the damage to the Public Service was done under the Goss Government (see Outline of the History of the Westminster Tradition's Breakdown), politicisation of the Public Service has long had bipartisan support (see Queensland's Opposition seems Equally Guilty), [Other documents which have addressed this issue are in a Chronological Summary on my web-site];
  • ensuring that Public Services have the competence to give worthwhile independent counsel to elected governments about potential policy innovations requires an independent system of professional accountability which is not subject to political manipulation (eg see The Effect of Public Service Politicisation which suggested why it would not be not feasible for non-experts [including the judiciary] to evaluate the adverse effect of politicisation). The Goss Government set up very elaborate procedures to promote 'merit and equity' in Public Service appointments, but these were a farce because they were not built on any repository of professionalism (eg knowledge about what professional 'merit' actually was). In fact legislation was enacted to make it unnecessary to seriously consider merit in making 'senior' appointments - presumably to protect the inexperienced political favourites who were installed in those positions (see email, 10/4/04)

Good luck in your further pursuit of this important question.


John Craig


Email sent 4/3/08

Professor Peter Botsman

Detoxifying NSW Labor

Thanks for your email of 4/3/08 which linked to a paper (De-Toxifying NSW Labor) that outlined problems in the NSW ALP and also suggested possible solutions.

The problems which you identify internally within the ALP (ie politicisation of administration, centralization of control and a tendency towards 'crony capitalism') are little different to those being experienced by state governments.

In Queensland, for example, the Goss administration (in which the current Prime Minister had a central role) politicised administration and centralised control in an effort to ensure that its agenda could be followed, and ultimately achieved almost nothing apart from leaving its successors with unworkable machinery of government (see Queensland's Worst Government?). And, as in Western Australia, those with good political connections seem increasingly to be exploiting their positions for personal profit (see Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?). And, for some, a career in 'public administration' became the preferred pathway to political advancement.

Your reform proposals for the NSW ALP might be enhanced by giving more consideration to the environmental changes which have caused difficulties for democratic governance generally - which may be along the lines speculated in Challenges to Australia's Democratic Institutions. A core point is that complexity seems to be overwhelming those institutions, and they have reacted by over-simplifying issues and thus losing their ability to deal with them effectively. Over-simplification is reflected in both politicisation and centralization of control.

Solutions speculated in the latter reference involve developing stronger supports to the political system to enable it to cope better with complexity. Simply trying to 'democratise' ALP machinery in NSW without boosting the ability of such political institutions to cope with complexity is likely to be ineffective.


John Craig