CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

20 April 2000

Letter to Members of the Legislative Assembly

A Renewed Public Service for Queensland

As you may recall, I have written frequently about the costs to Queensland of the amateur-isation / politicisation of the Public Service (eg on 28/9/98; 11/12/98; 23/7/99). And on 28 May 1999, I highlighted a press report suggesting that such politicisation appeared to have bi-partisan political support - though each major party blamed the other for this necessity.

As you may also be aware, a former senior NSW official was reported recently to have suggested, in an address to the Brisbane Institute, that the practice of 'chopping and changing' top public servants after changes in government should be terminated ('Bring back apolitical bureaucrats' (editorial) and 'Call to protect bureaucrats', Courier Mail, 29/3/00).

I attach an outline of a draft paper, Renewal of Queensland's Public Service, which suggests how the change he proposed might be made. My (draft) paper suggests:

A full version of the paper can be provided on request

Restoring professionalism is not going to be painless. Our Public Service is currently built on a very shaky foundation - which has translated into a justified dis-respect for the 'senior' Public Service (1), and into apparently seriously defective administrative performance (2). The suggested renewal process would build on such provable professionalism as still exists in the Public Service. It would take several years to fully implement, but should also produce useful short term benefits by ensuring that the senior New Public Service focuses on professional concerns rather than on politicking (3).

However our Public Service can never regain credibility until past injustices are resolved (4). And to avoid repetitions it is vital to: ensure general recognition that flouting of sensible traditions can result in inadvertent failures; expose the hypocrisy about merit on which the old Public Service is now founded; and genuinely renew its professional skill base.

[[Signed John Craig]]


1. Respect? Senior officials in a politicised Public Service must lack the respect which they require to do their jobs effectively. Commonwealth permanent heads have expressed concern about this (see Harris T., 'Yes, Yes, Yes Minister, Financial Review, 31/12/99). In Queensland, disrespect for the old Public Service will be justified and unavoidable until fundamental changes are put in place, because of the disgraceful treatment of the Public Service under the Goss Government whereby hundreds (or thousands) or individuals were subjected to incompetent and unjust treatment (without recourse) in the process of what some feared was simply 'putting in a political fix' (Prasser S., 'The Need for Reform in Queensland', in Hede A., Prasser S., and Nylan N. Keeping them Honest: Democratic Reform in Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1992). One case which proved that merit was not really a required consideration in appointments during the 1990s involved:

And where merit is not a required consideration in senior appointments, there is no way to prove that it has been meaningfully considered at any level, as senior officials are responsible for more junior appointments. [[An aside: the merit issues in the above case and their considerable significance for community welfare are outlined in Defects in Economic Tactics, Strategy and Outcomes - which had been Attachment A to Renewal of Queensland's Public Service]].

2. The Effect of Amateur-isation: An account of how well-meant political attempts to reform the Public Service misfired was given in Towards Good Government in Queensland (with my letter of 25/8/98). The main theme was that supposed 'reform' in the early 1990s, flouted the Westminster tradition of an independent meritorious Public Service, and in doing so eroded its skill base and eliminated the best source of advice and support able to help in implementing widely desired reforms. This slowly led to administrative breakdowns (eg muddles in health and education services, fumbled infrastructure planning) and to an inability to implement pre-election policies promising real economic development due to continuance of out-dated 'industrial' era economic tactics (see Defects in Economic Tactics, Strategy and Outcomes - which had been Attachment A to Renewal of Queensland's Public Service). Arguably Queensland's practical ability to achieve any goals, or to make further realistic policy progress, was set back by 10-15 years. While the Borbidge Government attempted to restore practical experience to the Public Service (through its 'Dad's army'), its strategic agenda was not strong. In 1998, the present Government recreated a populist version of the administrative regime which had (invisibly) brought down the Goss Government. And indicators of a re-emerging administrative shambles are again becoming visible, including:

[[In some respects Queensland in its current Smart State mode resembles Victoria under the unfortunate Cain administration in the 1980s. The latter's 'bull in a China shop' efforts to 'push' through what were popularly seen as desirable and long overdue economic goals was very expensive and ultimately self defeating (due to the lack of market relevance of primarily politically oriented 'economic' projects). In both cases, this was associated with: the loss of experienced Public Service advise about requirements for successful implementation and; slower overall growth than others achieved (see Murray R. and White K. The Fall of the House of Cain, 1992, and O'Malley B., 'Premier see GST as hurdle for jobless', Courier Mail, 1/3/00).]]

3. Immediate Improvement: Defects in administration due to politicisation mainly result from the environment in which public servants work (eg where political game-playing is THE way to get ahead, then astute 'gamesmen' will be favoured at the expense of those with real competence in policy and implementation, and 'game-playing' will take precedence over real work at senior levels). However, if the environment is changed such that the political option for advancement is eliminated, then the situation should quickly stabilise - eg even overtly politicised 'senior public servants' would have to emphasise real work, or move directly into politics.

4. So much for the Westminster tradition: It has been vital for many years to 'blow the whistle' on under-performance resulting from a lack of balanced, high-level Public Service knowledge and experience. When it first became obvious in the early 1990s that things were going seriously wrong in terms of practical implementation of government policy and promoting community welfare, many existing public servants (such as myself) tried to carry out their traditional Westminster role as a source of independent advice. However the response was to 'shoot the messengers' in the name of 'reform' (see note 1). This apparently led one observer to describe my situation as a test case for the (apparently now defunct) Westminster tradition (see McDermott P., `Tenure of Senior Queensland Public Servants', Australian Journal of Public Administration, March 1993). Also in 1993 the deputy Ombudsman verbally indicated (in relation to my case) that existing legislation for Public Service appointments potentially allowed irresolvable injustices to occur, but then the Ombudsman's office demonstrated its fatal weakness by failing to report even this clear legislative defect to Parliament. And, after many direct representations to Members of the Legislative Assembly, only one MLA ever indicated that they believed that merit in Public Service appointments even mattered - though he also suggested that past injustices could not be resolved.