23 July 1999
To Members of the Legislative Assembly
Queensland's Biggest Future Problem: A Damaged Public
I wrote about the damage politicisation does to the senior Public Service, and
quoted indicators of deficiencies thus created in Queensland. These may now make
effective Government impossible - though the electorate won't see the results
for a year or two.
More Anecdotes about Public Service Capabilities in 1999
Additional indicators were obtained (without 'leading' questions) from
- "An acting supervisor prevented staff from fully investigating a
matter - and insisted on a narrow focus because the supervisor lacked skills
in dealing with the bigger issues, and because they wished to stay entirely
within what was acceptable to their superiors in order to protect their
position. Achieving the agency goal required efforts which were well beyond
the skill base of the supervisor - but not beyond those of their subordinate
- who none-the-less was dependent on the supervisor to retain a position in
the public service."
- "The public service is a shambles. It is not obvious how anything
gets done" (1).
- "The public service has lost its corporate memory, and now repeats
mistakes made previously. The costs are enormous"
- "Ministers appeared to be dismayed when they first realized that it
was impossible to get useful results out of the people who were supposed to
work for them".
- "Senior management, in the wreckage of the public service which
resulted from the Goss Government's reforms, often lacks the capacity to
resolve the complex problems which are within their nominal area of
responsibility. Overlaid on this, many Department heads are recent political
appointees who lack institutional memory and any understanding of the
practicalities of their Department's roles, and who turn management up-side
down, generate resentments and leave their Department's floundering worse
- "Staff are busy with routine work - but just waiting for something to
happen, rather than trying to achieve anything. Many now focus solely on
holding their job. While permanent public servants have been granted some
security, there are so many temporary employees with no such guarantees that
a reaction very much like that which the Goss administration provoked is
- "Policy is now concerned only with public relations - not with
content. It is about word-smithing so that simpletons can say (and hear)
- "Strategic capability (2) has
disappeared in all government departments - and will not re-appear with the
types of people who are being recruited. Senior staff could never acquire a
strategic viewpoint even with endless training. An accounting mentality
(which focuses narrowly, and avoids big issues) dominates. The result is
that (in policy terms) the system is being run by a great wack of 'yes men'.
There is also a sense in which the state is resting on its laurels.
Queensland will be in a very precarious position if Asia sorts itself out -
as the whole region is run by strategic thinkers".
- "Managerialism (3) has been
- "The main goal of Public Servants now is to survive. They have lost
their freedom to tell the truth".
The author lacks the resources to check such assertions. However a similar
view seems widespread amongst those who do not have politically-granted
positions to protect. Thus the Goss Government's 'reforms' (which the 1999
Public Service again fully reflects) will probably eventually have to be
acknowledged to have been a disaster (4).
It appears that 'nature' is just, even if Queensland's legislated procedures
for senior staff appointments are not.
I have written repeatedly about my unresolved dispute with the Premier's
Department - the result of its refusal in the early 1990s to allow merit to be
considered in a grievance about the process of senior staff selection
(5). As you may also be aware, the closest that matter came to being
'resolved' was a 1993 view from the Ombudsman that, because legislation
prevented merit being used as a basis for appeal of SES appointments, it would
have been anomalous for merit to be considered in a grievance. The Deputy
Ombudsman also pointed out that this legislated provision potentially allowed
injustices to occur, which could not be resolved.
As you may also be aware, many other individuals also appeared to be treated
incompetently and unjustly during 'reform' in the early 1990s'. However
injustices which are not resolved, do not just go away. In fact, it is their
nature that they often rebound on their perpetrators.
Current proposals to re-introduce merit as a consideration in Public Service
appointments (6), suggest that the present
Government's advisors have now realized that the credibility (and job-security)
of senior officials depends on whether their appointments are seen to be based
on merit. And, in the face of a re-emerging administrative 'mess' like that
which undermined the Goss Government, many may now want to avoid their
'merit' being questioned.
However there is justice in nature. Merit has not really had to be
considered during the 1990s for appointment to SES and CEO positions, and thus could
not be considered at other levels. Thus the professional credibility of the
Public Service in 1999 has NOT been established.
[Signed John Craig]
Attachment A: Why Early 1990s Public Service
'Reforms' were a Failure
An attempt to explain what went wrong was submitted to the Labor Election
Review Panel in 1995 (see Towards
Good Government in Queensland (TGGIQ - a copy of which was
previously provided). Comments by observers of the 'reform' process suggested
clear and numerous problems (see Attachment
A of TGGIQ) . Key factors leading to the failure of 'reform'
appeared to be that:
- there had been wide support for the stated reform goals of the incoming
Goss administration in the Public Service in the late 1980s. The Public
Service should have been the instrument to achieve those reforms, but was
treated as the problem. Treating the Public Service as the problem,
excluded the main source of information about how to make reform successful.
Why did this happen? The 'reform' process was (probably)
confused by reform theories developed by Peter Wilenski [TGGIQ
p6]. He had argued (based on problems experienced by the Whitlam Government in
the 1970s) that overcoming bureaucratic resistance to change was the major
problem in reform. This was a narrow / erroneous view because (a) similar
problems were experienced with similar 1970s reforms in the USA, despite a
politically appointed bureaucracy; (b) blaming the bureaucracy merely made
them into scapegoats for far more complex constraints - which could thus not
- implementation of 'reform' was entrusted to politically-well-connected
persons, who had:
- studied government, but who lacked deep knowledge / experience of what
government had to do. Thus in practice 'reform' was based on a poor
understanding of government's complex, rapidly changing tasks;
- limited knowledge of corporate management. Thus methods were used
which were well out-of-date (eg strategic planning by 'planners' had
lost favour when strategy became really important to business around
1980 - see Craig J., Strategy
Development in Business and Government, 1997);
- those political appointees enforced a misguided agenda for Public
Service 're-engineering', whose goal was to make government
business-like - using corporate management methods (and later market tools).
This seemed different to government policies, and was misguided because:
- the 'managerialist' assumption, that management is a generalist activity
which requires little subject understanding, is typically false in both
business and government, eg consider Note 2 on this letter.
- government's functions are not like those of business. Business's
products are (tangible and intangible) 'things' which can be treated
separately, and traded in a market. Government's core products are a
framework for community economic and social transactions, and also goods
and services that involve market failures, eg those with large
externalities which can not properly be treated as separate 'things'.
- the attempt to make government 'business-like' was to achieve economic
goals (eg to get more value for money; lower infrastructure costs). What
was forgotten was that the pressure for Public Sector efficiency arose
from a deficiency in the productive capabilities of the economy. Thus what
was even more important was to develop those productive capabilities. This
was seriously impeded by the attempt to 're-engineer' government. Through
ignorance, much of the existing skill base was eliminated.
- many government functions were commercialized. However government
businesses are intrinsically limited in their ability to contribute to
economic productivity due to their political accountability (which reduces
customer responsiveness), and will thus (when competition really is
effective) presumably deliver the large losses to government budgets which
are traditionally associated with nationalized industries.
Though the agenda was seriously misguided, Public Servants were not
allowed to act as a source of competent independent advice to Government, and
point out such defects. Other jurisdictions had undertaken similar
're-engineering'. They had also experienced serious failures as a direct
result. The unfortunate experience of Victoria's Cain Government was already
obvious when very similar 're-engineering' was launched in Queensland (TGGIQ,
- politically driven 're-engineering' by across-the-board restructuring
and restaffing resulted in a loss of the Service's knowledge and skill base
[TGGIQ p2-4]. This
arose because the political system could not have information about what was
required for effective public administration (for the same reasons that
governments can not pick economic 'winners'). At times the most compliant,
least capable segments of the 1980s Public Service (who could scarcely
believe their luck) rose to senior positions in this environment, and so
allowed overt political appointees to appear capable.
Required senior Public Service skills can not be re-created easily, as they
involve both practical knowledge and leading edge theory - which can only be
gained by 15-20 years experience and study.
1. The view of an outside observer working with an agency
2. A strategic capability involves an ability to know
about and understand the significance of ideas and events in the environment
external to an organization (eg in other sectors, disciplines, countries), so as
foresee the future impact on the organization;
develop the organizations' capabilities to meet its future requirements; and
alter those external ideas and trends if this is feasible and desirable for
the organizations' future.
Staff with such capabilities are (apparently) seen by large businesses as
being extremely valuable. Such capabilities are difficult to create
because they must involve both practical understanding of the activities of the
organization, and advanced knowledge of its environment. Typically many years
experience is required to gain these abilities. This body of knowledge and
experience (and much more besides) was eliminated by politically driven 'reform'
of Queensland's Public Service in the early 1990s.
3. Managerialism is the view that management is a
generalist activity - ie that a good manager can be equally effective in any
area, and does not require detailed knowledge of the functions they are
4. 'Reform' was a disaster for reasons outlined in
5. See summary
attached to my letter
of 28/4/99 to Mr Beattie and Mr Borbidge (copy previously provided).
6. Stated in a letter of 24 May 1999 from the Premier's
Acting Chief of Staff, in response to my letter
of 28/4/99 about the reported endorsement of Public Service politicization
by senior political leaders. His statement was summarized in my reply
of 31 May 1999 (a copy of which was previously provided).