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24 October 2005
Mr David Solomon
I should like to offer a little feedback on your article that commented on the source of current Public Service problems.
My interpretation of your article: Laws used to protect public servants who dared to speak the truth. There were major changes in 1980s and 1990s which may have gone too far. There was bipartisan consensus in 1970s and 1980s that public service was too independent and not 'responsive' enough. Former PM said that Howard Government has damaged what was a good public service. Now public servants are only extension of government - and are totally political. Michael Costello points out that many of these changes were made by Labor Government - who introduced systemic changes in the 1980s and 1990s which removed the legal foundations which made it realistic for public servants to give frank and fearless advice (eg creating contract employment; and allowing dismissal). Peter Coaldrake argues that reforms took the view that public institutions were not subject to market disciples and were self seeking. The reforms were characterized as 'managerialism'. Public institutions were previously much less efficient and client focused than they are now. Dr Glyn Davis suggested that managerialist changes were about ministers asserting that they were in control - and this changed the balance between the public service and the ministers making it quite clear that the former were the servants. Senior public service is now more political than ever before. Noel Preston argues that in the name of political responsiveness too many public officials second guess the advice their political masters want to hear - which results in a culture of defensiveness, blame-shifting and a lack of personal responsibility (Solomon D., 'Crushed independence', Courier Mail, 15-16/10/05).
By way of background I note that I had a 25 year career involving strategic policy R&D in central agencies of the Queensland Government which focused mainly on a systems approach to administrative and economic development. This included close involvement in a (reasonably successful) process of administrative development in the 1970s and study of the theory and practice of administrative reforms in the 1990s (see also CV).
On that basis I submit that a professional and independent public service is essential under a political system like that in Australia because the activities of governments are too complex to be fully understood by an unsupported political system. The political system may focus on (say) 10-50 current issues, while the business of governing requires attention to (say) 100-500 issues. The latter must reflect not only current political concerns but also ongoing attention to all past political issues, and attempts to anticipate many that are likely to arise in future.
A key problem with public administration in Australia now is that it has been subjected to autocratic 'reforms' designed to impose a simplistic political agenda (eg supposedly to make public services more efficient and more responsive). Such 'reforms' stripped out much of the knowledge and ability needed to deal competently with everything else, and to change effectively in future. The Decay of Australian Public Administration (on my web-site) drew attention to the way in which many public agencies were thus transformed into politicised pseudo-businesses which were essentially incapable of contributing adequately to the real responsibilities of government.
Moreover, contrary to suggestions that you recorded in your article, the result has not been greater efficiency. Government is not like a business as (a) its main role is governing and (b) its service delivery roles typically involve functions which are intrinsically complex / costly because they are subject to real market failures. Government's main challenge is to manage the 'relationships' between things, rather than dealing with 'things' that are coordinated through market mechanisms which is what business does efficiently. The resulting complexity is also a major (yet unrecognised) constraint on governments' ability to provide goods and services effectively through alternative machinery such as Public Private Partnerships.
The primary effect of politicisation and the attempted application of 'business-like' methods has been a general decline in the effectiveness of government (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service which includes reference to numerous resulting dysfunctions). This is probably not, however, the only challenge to effective governance (see Australia's Governance Crisis).
These problems have been drawn to the attention of Queensland's political establishment repeatedly over many years (see Chronological Summary). For example a 1995 submission to the ALP Election Review panel (which showed how autocratic 'reform' had contributed to the demise of the Goss Government) was circulated to all members of the Legislative Assembly. That document, Towards Good Government in Queensland, basically dealt with (a) the politically-driven abuses of a public service that had generally been supportive of the incoming government's agenda and (b) the resulting insecure footing of the new government machinery that made effective administration very difficult. Preventing truth from being told was unfortunately a foundational part of this 'reform' process (see Ombudsman's Reasons).
However, as with the administrative dysfunctions which resulted (such as those in Queensland Health), the whole issue has just been covered-up because it has been politically convenient to do so.