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21 January 2007

Professor Patrick Weller,
Department of Politics and Public Policy,
Griffith University

What is the Value of 'High Level Public Service Experience' in a Bad Government?

I should like to provide feedback in relation to a recent article (which I have outlined below) in which you suggested that high level public service experience under Queensland's Goss Government would be an excellent experience base for an Australian prime minister.

My comments are also outlined in detail below. In brief they suggest that:

  • there is no doubt, as your article pointed out, that the incoming Goss Government inherited a difficult situation in Queensland in 1989. However;
  • it compounded those difficulties by very poor decisions about managing change (eg by centralizing policy development through a Cabinet Office and politicization of the Public Service), all of which resulted in very bad government. The outcome was not only unsatisfactory progress with Fitzgerald's democratic reform agenda, but widespread practical and policy failures - and the creation of a system of government that still suffers severe problems;
  • the Public Service opposition encountered was much less to the reform agenda (as you suggested), than to the amateurish management of 'reform';
  • other governments that have implemented similar policy centralization and politicization have also experienced bad outcomes;
  • contrary to your suggestion, nothing seems to have been learned from the Goss Government's debacle; and
  • though a few individuals have profited from 'high level public service experience' in that bad government (ie by gaining political connections which helped advance their careers), there is little reason to believe that such experience would provide anyone with a sound foundation for governing well in future.

I would be interested in your views about these matters.


John Craig

Detailed Comments

What is the Value of 'High Level Public Service Experience' in a Bad Government?

In a recent article, you suggested that high level public service experience under Queensland's Goss Government would be a very good basis for becoming Australia's prime minister.

My interpretation of the article: Kevin Rudd lacks ministerial experience, but has untold experience at high levels of public service. To get an indication of his potential performance as prime minister, Rudd's career will be assessed - especially that as chief of staff to Goss and subsequently head of the Cabinet Office. Those were dire times in Queensland - after the Fitzgerald inquiry had uncovered a rotten core. Ministers were jailed, the public service had little policy capability, and the framework was archaic. The Fitzgerald report set much of the agenda, and established commissions on whose work the government had to wait. Then Goss had to sell the recommendations politically. Departments were cut from 28 to 18. Only one director general was brought in from outside Queensland's public service. The Public Sector Management Commission (PSMC) reviewed departments and advertised top positions. Two director general's were retained in their positions. Opposition to change within the public service was intense - though the reform was not radical compared with other states. Queensland merely lagged. Rudd's influence was greatest in policy areas (eg in special premier's conferences and COAG). Goss saw the effectiveness of policy advice that the NSW Cabinet Office gave Greiner - so with help from Gary Sturgess Queensland's Cabinet Office was born. It was small (less than 80 staff) and worked across departments on what are now called whole-of-government issues. Rudd had been schooled in the policy capacity of central agencies in Canberra and wanted the same drive and knowledge to ensure quality advice. At times the Office could seem arrogant. Ministers were nervous of its demand, and public servants were intimidated. The Cabinet Office did nothing not done in Canberra before and since. Its influence was no greater than the Prime Minister's Department now, and it was less centralized than the Kennett government. Rudd was merely an adviser: Goss was in charge, and he worked with a team of ministers and senior public servants. Rudd was a member of that team. Rudd left in 1994, when he gained federal pre-selection in Griffith. Some things went wrong eg in combining organizational development with the new policy agenda (but this wasn't Rudd's decision); and feathers were ruffled and some people were offended (from which lessons will have been learned). Rudd had a significant role, but was not the only player. If Rudd wins, he will be the first prime minister to have experience of running a public service department - which will provide a streak of realism about what government can achieve, and what public services can do. This will provide an antidote to the illusions of glory and omnipotence that sometime affect the newly elected (Weller P., 'Schooled in the art of the possible', Australian, 17/1/07).

There is no doubt, as your article noted, that the incoming Goss administration faced a difficult situation in 1989, eg: corruption had grown; Queensland was out of date in many respects; and the Public Service had little policy capability.

There is also little doubt that many in the Public Service had struggled to confront and try to overcome those defects for years. As a consequence by 1989, the Public Service: was by-and-large in favour of reform; had in some cases learned a great deal about what was required to improve the situation; and had high hopes for the future. After all, ALP pre-election policies had referred to a Return to Westminster - ie to the tradition of a professional and apolitical Public Service.

Unfortunately the Goss administration was very poorly advised and chose to make its difficult situation impossible - by policy centralization and an across-the-board process of Public Service 'restructuring and re-staffing'. Reasons this led to problems were explored in Toward Good Government in Queensland (1995) - though a hint of why things went wrong can be gained by recognizing that:

  • professional competence was legislatively excluded as a necessary consideration in making 'senior' appointments; and
  • while there certainly had been a strong desire to establish a sound policy capability, political advisers and PSMC reviewers had only vague ideas about what practical policies would actually look like - so they often installed cronies and 'yes men' who would / could not point out defects in the (often ivory-tower) 'policy' advice that started emerging.

One result was widespread opposition (in the Public Service and elsewhere) to the amateurish way in which the Goss administration managed reform. Very little or no opposition to the reform agendas themselves would have been likely if the process had been competently executed.

'Reformers' seemed to have an academic understanding that public administration is complex - but they showed no awareness of what this actually means in practice. Centralized policy development was favoured though it must fail for the same reason that central economic planning fails (ie as Hayek showed, any central 'authority' dealing with a very complex system must lack access to the information required to form relevant plans). Whole-of-government policy which, as your article pointed out, was the focus of Goss's Cabinet Office can only reliably be formulated with the willing participation of those who have the detailed knowledge. Queensland had done this fairly well in the 1970s and showed how the cohesion and sense of purpose of a whole-government system could be increased. Its experience in the 1980s then showed that neglect of this in favour of support for investors in 'major projects' would lead to administrative decay, while the Goss Government's contribution in the 1990s was to show how to make a bad situation worse.

It has recently been argued that the Goss Government's attempt to implement Fitzgerald's democratic reforms were unsatisfactory (Prasser S., 'Rudd's ruthless style entrenched Labor', Australian, 11/1/07). However there were also numerous practical failures (eg in service delivery, infrastructure development and economic strategy) that must be considered in assessing the history of that government. And the enduring legacy of the Goss Government seems to be a centralized and politicized system of public administration that remains dysfunctional and crisis prone (see Improving Public Sector Performance in Queensland, 2005).

As your article noted, other state governments (eg those of Greiner in NSW and Kennett in Victoria) went down a similar (ie 'new public management') path. However what was not mentioned was that they also apparently:

  • suffered from a (so called) 'Queensland effect' (ie large and unexpected electoral reversals because of perceived arrogance); and
  • have left a legacy of a system of public administration that is clearly not working well [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].

The present federal government also started down a similar path in around 2000, eg by by centralizing policy development in the Prime Minister's Department and appears to be showing symptoms of the now-predictable political and practical consequences (see Decay of Australian Public Administration: A Diagnosis, 2002)

Your article suggested that a great deal has probably been learned from from what went wrong under the Goss administration.

However there is no sign of this. There remains at least one unresolved dispute related to abuse of power in that era, and those who profited seem determined to ensure that what happened at that time will never be seriously discussed. This is not a formula for anyone learning anything from history.

All that can really be concluded from the history of that era is that there can be great value for individuals in 'high level public service experience' in a bad government. Providing whistleblowers can be silenced or ignored, gaining strong political connections can provide an excellent aid to cronies' career advancement. However the value of such 'high level public service experience' as a foundation for governing well in future must be suspect.

Speculations about institutional reforms that might promote less erratic government in Australia before decay becomes irreversible are outlined in Restoring 'Faith in Politics' (2006).