CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

23 July 1999

To Members of the Legislative Assembly

Queensland's Biggest Future Problem: A Damaged Public Service?

On 28/5/99, 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 various observers:

  1. "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."
  2. "The public service is a shambles. It is not obvious how anything gets done" (1).
  3. "The public service has lost its corporate memory, and now repeats mistakes made previously. The costs are enormous"
  4. "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".
  5. "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 than before".
  6. "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 likely".
  7. "Policy is now concerned only with public relations - not with content. It is about word-smithing so that simpletons can say (and hear) something".
  8. "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".
  9. "Managerialism (3) has been disastrous".
  10. "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).

Natural Justice

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:

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 to:

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 managing.

4. 'Reform' was a disaster for reasons outlined in Attachment A.

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).