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9 December 2005

Dr Scott Prasser
Sunshine Coast Research Institute for Business Enterprise

Overcoming Official Incompetence

I would like to make some suggestions concerning your recent proposal for ending the poor decisions, bungled projects and waste of public money that result from appointing incompetent public officials.

My interpretation of your article: There is a need for a more bipartisan approach to appointment of public officials - as there have been too many controversial appointments - in the federal government, courts and states. Australian governments have long breached the walls of public service independence and merit. Thousands of senior appointments have made without any process of consultation, reference to parliament or broader community input. Internal checks like public service boards have been removed. Each new government can't resist putting in their own people into plum jobs because their predecessors did so. This undercuts prestige, expertise and trust of key institutions. Independence is the essence of role of organizations such as Reserve Bank. Other adverse effects of inept appointment processes include: poor decisions; bungled projects and waste of public money. These is a need for a process which shows that a person, while having necessary connection with government is competent and not just partisan - perhaps a 'merit-crony'. The process must allow participation by Opposition and other key interest groups - and also ensure no conflicts of interest. Such a process has long operated in US through Senate Committee confirmation process. This is not designed to stop partisan appointments but to make sure they are competent and have no hidden skeletons. Fitzgerald Commission recommended such an arrangement for CJC appointments. This is needed for all senior appointments. The alternative is a special commission presided over by an eminent and respected person with nominees from government and opposition with full public inquiry process. Government can still make appointments it wants, but the public will at least know the facts. This would make government more costly / difficult but there may be no choice (Prasser S., 'Choose mates of merit', Courier Mail, 5/12/05).

Your article suggested trying to ensure that, though senior officials might be politically partisan, they should at least be competent.

The issue you raised is important. For example, the financial cost of de-skilling on Queensland's increasingly dysfunctional and crisis prone public sector is becoming significant (see Evidence of a Problem). Moreover, as your article correctly noted, the problem is by no means limited to any one government (see also Decay of Australian Public Administration).

However the particular options that your article suggested would be unlikely to work because official incompetence seems to be a systemic consequence of political control of official appointments and working conditions. The problem seems to be that:

  • Queensland's / Australia's whole political environment has had inadequate information about the complex and technically challenging requirements for effective government. Bipartisan support or advice from external interest groups will not overcome this inability to judge competence competently, because:
  • traditionally (especially in Queensland) there have been no external civil institutions able to provide practical advice to the political establishment about what is required for success in government. This gap, which is a result of Australia's colonial origins and history of copying imported policy trends, is one source of the traditional weakness of Queensland's parliamentary system;
  • practical experience (which can't be gained outside government) is critical to success. Under the Goss Government politically-connected academics, with all the theoretical knowledge about the nature of government that one could hope for, were allowed to control administrative 'reform' and proved unaware of what needed to be done to put their theoretical knowledge into practice;
  • the primary role of government is governing - and this requires skills that are different to those appropriate to business, which is a second major source of advice to Queensland's / Australia's political system. To oversimplify, 'governing' primarily involves managing relationships (eg in creating a legal framework for economic activities), rather than producing things;
  • governing also requires dealing with very complex systems - and understanding them from the viewpoint of what is required for the system (eg an economy) to work properly rather than from the viewpoint of what is required for success by a participant in the system (eg a business). Moreover complexity requires different methods / skills to the relatively simple systems with which individuals and small / medium enterprises are confronted (eg 'rational' analysis may not be very effective). For example apparently rational proposals in 1989 to reform Queensland's democratic institutions contributed to the serious problems that emerged in public administration because little account was taken of many related issues they impacted upon (see 'Unjust laws an abuse of power').

If almost no one in the general community has the required knowledge and experience to realistically assess competence, any 'process of consultation, reference to parliament or broader community input' is likely to be a hypocritical pretence. For example I personally was exposed to an elaborate 'process' for making a senior appointment which ultimately degenerated into farce when the Queensland Premier's Department (whose 'merit' selection process manifestly lacked the ability to understand what was involved in a technically complex function) ultimately refused (apparently legally) to allow merit to be considered, and ever since has maintained a (defensive) pretence that the issue was resolved on merit while flatly refusing to justify or even to discuss its action.

  • dysfunctional outcomes tend to be generated by a politicised working environment irrespective of the innate competence of officials. It does not matter how competent public officials may be, because in a politicised working environment (ie where their work is valued, and their career prospects determined, according to 'political' / popularity criteria), that environment itself will ensure dysfunctional practical performance. This applies, for example, to:
  • the Public Service - where a bullying / concealment culture has apparently been generated in Queensland Health (and many other state and federal agencies) by a combination of 'senior' officials who lack professional credibility and a 'politically-focused' working environment (see Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission); and
  • Heads of State (Governors / Governor General) - who constitutionally hold ALL executive power and are expected to exercise restraint in its use and act only on the advice of democratically elected governments, would become a competitors who disrupted Australia's system of representative government if their role were politicised (see Politicisation of the Crown).

The Westminster tradition, which was developed in the UK in the mid 19th century and Queensland / Australia then inherited, incorporated under-stated protections against such problems (eg an independent professional Public Service, and other institutions to limit the power of elected politicians). However problems re-emerged when that system was (accidentally?) demolished.

While the US has had more success with appointment of what you labelled 'merit-cronies', Queensland's / Australia's situation is much different because of the local lack of institutions in which potential 'merit-cronies' could gain the required knowledge / experience (see Deficiencies in Opposition's Approach to Senior Public Service Appointments). Moreover the US system of partisan official appointments seems to be contributing to ineffective action in the war against terror (ie action focused primarily on military rather than civil options), and to increasingly widespread concern about top-level official incompetence in US government. Future credibility and more effective performance probably requires a shift by the US to a more professional and independent Public Service system.

The consequence of shifting from a professional to an amateur Public Service in Queensland and elsewhere have been repeatedly pointed out to all Members of the Legislative Assembly for over a decade (see Chronological Summary). However MLAs generally have not wanted to to hear about either the resulting abuses or the practical failures - presumably because those problems imply that there has to be more to effective government than getting electoral support and autocratically issuing instructions. The problem of loss of official competence was also highlighted to the Queensland Council of Professions in 2003. However, while the members of the Council seemed to agree that there was a problem, they did not know what to do about it.

The challenge is to develop the institutional capability to acquire and retain the necessary competencies. One way to do this effectively would be through re-creation of an independent professional Public Service. Significant improvements in the competence and coherence of Queensland's Public Service were made in the 1970s when this issue was taken seriously. Unfortunately in the 1980s the 'ship of state' was allowed to drift and ultimately crashed into rocks in the late 1980s. It was then hauled onto a sandbank for repairs - and has lain there slowly rusting ever since.

However now that increasing demands are being placed on Queensland's public sector (eg to provide services to cope with rapid population growth) the chickens are coming home to roost. There have thus been increasing attempts to contain the costs of incompetent government (eg see examples outlined in Improving Public Sector Performance). However, as the latter document notes, those efforts are bound to be futile because the effect of incompetent policy choices can't be corrected by saving on (say) postage stamps, but only by better policy choices.

Thus there is a real need to solve the problems that your article identified - though, as noted above, the issue is anything but simple.


John Craig

Centre for Policy and Development Systems

Feedback Third Party Feedback Received 9/12/05

A well written letter.

As we now have virtually every SES position being decided on political affiliations as much as everything else, and I can assure you ability is very low on the list, maybe its time to de-politicise the Public Service by a number of methods.

Firstly, we now have senior public servants that cannot write, develop policy, or have any experience outside of either politics or academia.

A career PS meant starting at the bottom, or close to and working your way up because you developed skills and were good at what you did. A degree did not automatically impart those skills. It is an art form. Having people skip several grades every 2 years to get them to the top because they are the Branch Secretary etc doesn't do the state or country any good.

I know of DG's who never attend a meeting because they are so introverted they can't talk to people, not only fellow public servants but anybody in the community. So where do they get their real life experience from, books presumably.

When I started out no one was a member of a political party, it was never an issue. You were a Public Servant first and foremost. How you voted no one cared and no one wanted to know to see if you were promotion worthy.

I fear it is too late as with the new Health budget it is still about the managers. They move people out of Health to make it look good on the numbers side but the same people go on doing the same jobs but under a different identity. These people are all about power, especially within the party so numbers under you equates to power, and so does a large budget.

We have a country where infrastructure will soon be on third world standards yet Gov'ts have record income levels and surpluses. The money goes into Bureaucrats. We face enormous competition from China and India both for resources and from cheap labour. We survive because we have mineral wealth. But we are nearly out of oil and when that hits US$100.00 a barrel just watch the economy. US interest rates keep on climbing and everyone here keeps believing ours won't go up. Its like Alice in Wonderland stuff.

Maybe we need it all to go belly up before we get the changes required.

But Politics and the Public Service are now all about process not results.

[Signed . experienced ex public servant]