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A Westminster-style Professional and Independent Public Service: Good Idea but Wishing Won't Make it So - email sent 23/2/15

Hon Ms Annastacia Palaszczuk, MLA.
Premier of Queensland 

Re: Special Broadcast: A Message from the Premier of Queensland, Wednesday, 18 February 2015

I should like to endorse the goal (ie creating a Westminster-style professional and independent public service) that was stated in your recent message to Queensland public servants. However achieving this will be anything but easy and will take many years.

A MESSAGE FROM THE PREMIER To our valued public servants: With the swearing-in of the new Queensland Government, I am keen to provide public servants with an update on our priorities for the public sector workforce. From the outset, I want to assure you that the new government has the highest regard for the professionalism and independence of the Queensland public service. That is why I have committed to restoring fairness for public servants and ensuring that the proper conditions exist for them to provide frank and fearless advice to government. As part of this commitment, we will return to a Westminster-style model that values and supports a permanent public service. We will also reinstate those conditions for public servants that were removed by the previous government, particularly in relation to employment security, contracting-out and organisational change provisions. Also, I want to acknowledge that previous machinery-of-government changes have caused significant disruption and reassure you that we will do everything we can to keep changes to a minimum. Thank you for your patience over the past few weeks. I look forward to working with and meeting you. Yours sincerely This email was sent by The Premier of Queensland, PO Box 15185, City East, Queensland 4002 to

The need to restore professionalism and independence to Queensland’s public service (and to those in other Australian administrations) has been obvious for a long time (eg see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, 2001+). The latter outlined how the professionalism and independence of the public service had been lost in the early 1990s, suggested why this had happened and identified evidence of the dysfunctional consequences that Queensland subsequently endured.

To overcome such problems it is not sufficient merely to endorse a ‘Westminster-style model’. A pre-election statement by the Goss Government was ironically entitled Return to Westminster: Public Service Reform under the Goss Government – and said much the same as your recent email to Queensland public servants. However that administration then inadvertently put in place a ruthless process of purging professionalism and independence from the public service – because those that government put in charge of ‘reform’ were unaware of what they didn’t know about what was needed for effective government and for actually achieving the Goss Government’s policy aspirations (see also Towards Good Government in Queensland, 1995 and The Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002). Independent observers were not impressed by the results (see Some Comments on the Public Sector and on Reform, 1995).

More recent indications of the need to restore professionalism and independence to the public service are listed in Towards a Professional Public Service. For example:

  •  By 1999 it was quite clear that public service politicisation had bipartisan political support (see Politicisation Lowers Public Service Standards and Performance);
  •  In 2002 the then Queensland Public Sector Union argued that workplace and ministerial bullying of public servants was a symptom of the breakdown of the Westminster tradition (see Driven to Distraction);
  •  in 2004 it was publicly argued that there were no real checks on the competence of Queensland’s’ most ‘senior’ public servants – and that the latter hid behind elected officials (see Accountability of Queensland’s Senior Public Servants). And, as the latter noted, the Queensland’s Council of Professions had informally acknowledged the politicisation problem in 2001, but not known what to do about it. Also Commerce Queensland suggested in 2004 that there was a need for an independent review of Queensland’s public service (see Auditing the Queensland Public Service);
  •  in 2005 Queensland’s government was embroiled in apologies and costly cash injections in relations to problems that would arguably not have arisen had the political system had access to competent professional support (see Preventing, not just fixing, Dysfunctional Public Administration). In that year also:
    • Poor decisions, bungled projects and financial waste were seen to result from appointing incompetent public officials (see Overcoming Official Incompetence);
    • Efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to make public services ‘responsive’ were seen to have gone too far (see Crushed Independence);
  •  in 2006 concern was expressed that retribution seemed to have been meted out to a well-intentioned official whose efforts were not appreciated (The Cost of Honest Effort);
  •  in 2009 the head of the Crime and Misconduct Commission expressed concern about the loss of public service independence and effectiveness (Transforming Public Servants into 'Puppets');
  •  in 2012 there was seen to be a need for substantial reform of Queensland’s bureaucracy (see Can the Commander Do?); and
  •  in early 2013 it was noted that the Newman government had responded to the need for reform by continuing the by-then long established practice of itself making what were seen to be dubious appointments to ‘senior’ positions (see Dubious Public Sector Appointments are Old News).

The goal espoused in your recent email to public servants is highly desirable. A chronic lack of competent support to Australia’s political system is arguably a significant factor in in the political instabilities that Australia and Queensland currently suffer (eg see Ending Australia's Political Paralysis).

However it is not possible now to recover public service professionalism and independence merely by saying that it already exists. And inhibiting the emergence of a professional / independent public service is easy, eg:

  •  The search for public service ‘responsiveness’ (which was emphasised the last time Queensland’s public service was ‘reformed’) is likely to result in senior positions being filled by cronies and ‘yes men’. Moreover:
    • When elected governments are surrounded by cronies and ‘yes men’ they will be told what they want to hear, and be at risk of losing touch with the broader community and of failing to see problems in their policy agendas that could easily be corrected if they had access to a professional and independent public service;
    • Politicisation in the public service does not necessarily involve endorsing a partisan position supported by a current government. A public service dominated by ‘yes men’ (ie those who don’t express an informed opinion about any policy proposal no matter how risky) is also ‘politicised’;
  •  where ‘senior’ staff lack professional credibility, there is no basis for ensuring the professional competence of those they in turn appoint, and considerable risk of ‘bullying’ of competent subordinates who would be able to expose the professional inadequacies of the ‘senior’ staff; and
  •  reliance on selection criteria written by human resource staffs favours those with experiencing in politically-correct form-filling over those with knowledge and experience relevant to whatever job needs to be done.

Arguably success in achieving the Westminster-style professional and independent public service that your government seems to be seeking requires:

  •  Appointments to senior positions being made by those with the professional competence to do so – not by political advisers who believe that their perception of the public interest is flawless;
  •  That professional merit be a required consideration in making senior appointments;
  •  Repeal of the legislation introduced by the Goss Government that prevents appeals against senior executive service appointments;
  •  Protection for the careers of those who provide policy advice (ie help government ‘govern’) where the advice they give is politically unpalatable;
  •  something like an independent Public Service Board;
  •  clarifying a distinction between the public and private sectors. Private ownership and control of functions subject to significant market failures can create problems. And when combined with ready career shifts between the public and private sectors, the scope for conflicts of interest in relation to government decisions that affect private profit needs to be minimized;
  •  resolving the incompatibility of trying to adopt a competitive / ‘business-like’ approach to improve efficiency in the production of public goods and services and the requirement for undertaking government’s core role (ie governing);
  •  perhaps different provisions for public servants involved in general government functions (ie helping governments govern) and those involved in the operational provision of public goods and services;
  •  taking account of current changes in the international environment (eg the emerging influence of  East Asia’s ‘bureaucratic non-capitalist’ systems of socio-political-economy in an international environment previously dominated by Western-style ‘democratic capitalist’ systems). In the latter environment power is primarily associated with access to the best strategic intelligence (rather than with democratic endorsement) - so the politicization of public services renders Queensland / Australia increasingly weak and vulnerable;
  •  undertaking reform as just one amongst many government priorities – rather than as a pre-requisite to doing anything else. Arrangements such as those suggested here would need to be in place for many years to develop true professionalism and independence before the competent support that governments can potentially get from a Westminster-style public service is likely to be available;
  •  Starting by asking the existing public service what is the best way to achieve the desired outcome – so that: (a) existing programs as well as accumulated knowledge and experience can be redirected towards the desired goal; and (b) incompatibilities do not arise between a public service reform agenda and governments other significant challenges. The issues governments deal with are very complex. Stimulating public sector evolution in constructive directions through a strategic management process is likely to be more effective than external attempts to impose overly-simplistic changes on only-partly-understood systems.

Real progress won’t be achieved by political ‘tinkering’ with public service appointments, eg by: (a) by making public servants appointments in what is (politically perceived to be) the ‘public interest’ as the Goss administration’s advisers presumably tried to do - and as was reportedly recently suggested to be intended by Queensland’s new administration (eg Houghton D., ‘Palaszczuk letter spells out Labor’s none-too-palatable policy plans for the state”, Courier Mail, 14/2/15); or (b) politically appointing new heads of government departments (eg see DPC Head goes as Premier Takes Charge, PSNewsOnline, 19/2/15).

By way of background it is noted that (on the basis of experience and study of at-the-time-successful change management in Queensland’s public service in the 1970s) the present writer informally pointed out internally in the early 1990s that the across-the-board process of restructuring and re-staffing the Goss administration was using to ‘reform’ the public service could damage government effectiveness – because it involved over-riding rather than building on existing knowledge and experience (see Outline of Changing the Queensland Public Sector, 1990). He was then exposed to an abuse of power by the Department of Premier and Cabinet (ie a refusal to allow professional merit to be considered) in relation to the filling of a senior policy R&D position (eg see Autocratic Ignorance Purges the Public Service, 1999 and Seeking Natural Justice, 2004). What happened was described by one observer as a test of the Westminster tradition (McDermott P., `Tenure of Senior Queensland Public Servants', Australian Journal of Public Administration, March 1993) – a test that the Department of Premier and Cabinet failed in the present writer’s opinion.

John Craig

A Cynical Response
Cynical Email Response Received (24/2/15) from 'Anonymous' - in Response to Copy of the "A Westminster-style Professional and Independent Public Service: Good Idea but Wishing Won't Make it So" (and reproduced with permission) 

"The purging in 1990 onwards was not inadvertent. It was a deliberate policy led by Griffith University, Rudd, and all the labor hangers on. They viewed the Public Service as an employment agency for Labor Party supporters. So an easy and highly paid, at no expense to Labor, reward. Griffith Uni had a theoretical concept about a public service with no experience at all in the real world. Labor trusted no one. The reasons for this is that to get a job under Labor you had to be a party member or supporter, so they thought anyone in a position of influence must have belonged to the National Party. Anyone from a failed Labor State was a front runner, never mind fact their Govt had failed. I could give you countless examples of Labor's naivety on the policy and decision making front from my own experience. Do not think that anything has changed. It will just be done over time, to disguise it. Premier has a number of issues. They intend to repay over three years, $150m of the $80billion debt. So this could go on forever. Their expenditure will rise as they can never help themselves. So I will stick out my neck and go with $90 billion in debt by 2018. They will be opposed to a lot of resource development but won't know how to diversify the economy or build capability in other areas to compensate. Coal is dying, it might take 20 years but it will happen. Agriculture could go many ways with climate change. So what's left?. Maybe the South Australian solution, for every private enterprise job lost make a public service position available and expect the rest of Australia to pick up the tab. Then wonder why it all goes bust. ....  I now seriously doubt I will retire in this place. "


"... The sad thing is its both sides of politics. The Public Service is an employment agency for whichever party is in power. Mates, friends, relatives ( esp. wives using their maiden names to try to cover it up), apparatchiks who seem to move from one friendly Govt. to the next on a rotational basis. Then we wonder why there is no vision or long term plan. Three years ago China announced end of urbanisation policy, development of a huge coal mine in Mongolia to come on stream this year, and no one here thought what all that might do to coal and iron ore exports. Really sad thing is our politicians are not intelligent enough to realize their own weaknesses and employ the best, independent advisers they can find. Would rather have sycophants to boost their egos. Here endeth the Lesson. "


An Official Response +

Letter Received from Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk MP - 1/4/15 .

"Thank you for your email of 23 February 2015 regarding a Westminster-style professional and independent Queensland public service.

As expressed in my message to Queensland public servants, I agree that there is a need to reinstate professionalism and independence in our public service and to have public servants who feel secure in providing frank and fearless advice to Government. These changes will help build a better and stronger public service, and I agree that while my Government has commenced these changes, this will not happen overnight.

Restoring independence to Queensland's Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) is a necessary safeguard for a Westminster-style democracy. With this aim in mind, the position of Chair of the CCC has now been advertised.

Also in progress is the merit-based recruitment of Directors-General for all Queensland Government departments, including advertising nationally for the roles and having a recruitment panel consisting of members who are independent of the Government. This merit-based-system will ensure that regardless of political affiliation, the most qualified and capable applicants are appointed to senior government positions.

I appreciate the time you have taken to provide such detailed and well-researched information about the Queensland public service, and for your suggestions on how we can avoid repeating the errors of the past. As you mentioned, achieving our goal will no doubts be a long-term process. However, it is well worth the time and effort required to see a professional and independent public service restored in Queensland.

Again, than you for taking the time to write to me".

Queensland's Need for Stronger Institutions - email sent 7/4/15

Hon Ms Annastacia Palaszczuk, MLA,
Premier of Queensland

Thank you very much for your positive response to my comments of 23/2/15 on the need for, and difficulty of, genuinely creating a competent, professional and independent public service in Queensland. I have taken the liberty of reproducing your letter on my web-site.

However, as noted in my earlier email, your goals will not be easy to achieve even given your Government’s ambition to adopt truly ‘merit-based’ selection processes. It very difficult for any politically-established process to identify the nature of the quite-different ‘professional’ merit that is needed to complement ‘political’ understandings of what merit might involve (for reasons outlined in State may be Rudderless ... Full Stop).

Moreover ‘the time …. required to see a professional and independent public service restored in Queensland’ that your letter referred to may simply not be available.

Queensland (like Australia as a whole) does not at present enjoy stable parliamentary government. There is no strong public support for the strategies that have been proposed so far for dealing with difficult fiscal, economic and governance challenges. Available options seem largely to involve a zero-sum-game (ie a ‘game’ in which ‘winners’ mainly gain at the expense of ‘losers’). And there is unfortunately a real risk that current challenges (which have no obvious non-zero-sum solution) could worsen - for reasons like those mentioned in the context of current tax reform debates in A Broader Approach to Tax Reform.

Some suggestions about the nature and origin of Queensland’s challenges and of the institutional weaknesses that help explain why public understanding of those challenges and of positive-sum Queensland-controlled solutions is chronically weak were suggested in 2011 in What is the Problem? (and earlier in Queensland's Weak Parliament, 1999 and The Upper House Solution: A Commentary, 2006). As was argued in 2011, it is not only public services whose professionalism and orientation to the public interest could usefully be raised to ensure prosperity and progress at times when Queensland’s / Australia’s economic ‘luck’ proves unreliable (as seems to be the case at present).

Methods of discovering and implementing positive-sum solutions to Queensland’s challenges (which should reduce the constraint on effective government that results from parliamentary instability) might involve:

  •  Adopting something like the methods used in the 1970s for adapting the public sector to new public priorities (see Outline of Changing the Queensland Public Sector, 1990). This would require identification of a number of ‘areas of critical concern’ and enabling whole of government options for achieving these to be found (without disrupting the normal ‘business’ of government) through a centrally coordinated (by not centrally dictated) process. In the 1970s such an approach resulted, over several years, in the creation of a purposeful and cohesive public service that was perceived while those methods continued to be used to be the easiest in Australia for outsiders to deal with;
  •  Putting a ‘strategic intelligence’ front end on the planning processes used by state agencies (and hopefully also those of major civil institutions). Queensland’s international environment is complex, rapidly changing and increasingly locally significant. Systematic efforts to acquire, distribute and share relevant strategic intelligence need not be costly, but should improve Queenslander’s ability to plan for the future rather than for the past;
  •  Encouraging collaboration between different types of civil institutions (eg universities, associations, research bodies, business, unions) so that emerging issues and constructive options can be widely and better understood within the informed community (and thus ultimately by the electorate). Each type of institution has strengths in some area, but weaknesses in others (eg consider the valuable theoretical knowledge of universities that tends not to be complemented by knowledge of practical requirements);
  •  Facilitating the development of apolitical methods to accelerate market-oriented ‘learning’ within existing or potential industry clusters to increase the support available to individuals / enterprises in competing successfully in high productivity economic activities (eg as suggested in Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development, 2004 and Beyond Competition Policy, 2015). Potential benefits include: the creation of jobs and competitive advantages; a stronger tax base to increase public revenues; and accelerated regional development.

And, as for changes to the public service, broader initiatives like those suggested above need to be viewed as means to an end (ie enhancing the way current priority issues are addressed) not as an end in themselves. One of the many reasons that the attempt at public service reform in the early 1990s was widely perceived to be a disaster was that realistic capabilities could not result from restructuring and restaffing the public service merely to ‘reform’ it in accordance with a theoretical ideal. Queensland’s institutions need to be strengthened in the course of addressing real challenges and opportunities – not as an alternative to doing so.

John Craig