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Email sent 25/11/08

Ms Laura Tingle,
Financial Review

A Brain-dead Federal Public Service? What a Surprise!!

Your recent article ('Reinventing the public service', Financial Review, 20/11/08) commented on the Rudd Government's disappointment that the fresh ideas it hoped to get from the federal Public Service weren't available. Your article pointed out that:

  • the problem was not an unwillingness to provide 'frank and fearless advice' but that the Service had become largely a responsive beast, responding purely to the demands of government rather than prodding the executive with ideas of its own, and asking of ministers what advice they wanted;
  • ministers were disappointed because they had expected more, even though the problem reflects pressure from both sides of politics over the past two decades;
  • the government's decision to avoid a 'night of the long knives' and encouragement of ideas are evidence of its desire to recreate the Public Service.

There is a delicious irony in the Rudd Government inheriting the problems that previous generations of 'reformers' (such as Queensland's Goss Government - in which Mr Rudd had a central role) had generated through their naive and autocratic approach to 'reform' (eg see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, 2001, and Queensland's Worst Government?, 2005).

It is my understanding that the brain-dead responsiveness your article described in the federal Public Service is similar to the current situation in Queensland. The latter Public Service now apparently resembles that which existed when I joined it in the 1960s, before:

  • efforts were made in the 1970s to develop a more professional approach;
  • those efforts were neglected in the 1980s - and the cohesive purposefulness that the Public Service had been developing was frittered away; and
  • 'reformers' grossly abused political power to enforce unquestioning compliance with their often-out-of-date ideas in the early 1990s (and thus unknowingly replaced the Public Service's top-level professional competencies with cronies and 'yes men').

However politicisation is by no means the only factor in current weaknesses in Australia's machinery of government (see Australia's Governance Crisis , 2003). For example, the latter refers to the effect of widespread post-modern assumptions about the nature of knowledge which make it perfectly 'logical' for the Public Service to ask ministers what advice they want - because no ideas are supposed to be any better than any other. Moreover, unless institutions exist in civil society to provide community leaders with more realistic and up-to-date understanding of complex policy issues, future generations of ill-informed political reformers will undoubtedly again create brain-dead Public Services.

I would be interested in your views about these matters.

John Craig