With the polls remaining seemingly immovably against John Howard, it probably isn’t surprising that some left-leaning bloggers already have their hatchets out. Howard sacked 6 department heads after his 1996 election victory, and if bloggers have their way Kevie will be sacking quite a few more.
Kimberella over at LP in Exile, for example, advocates a wholesale spill of the ABC Board. Can’t see that happening somehow. Certainly Rudd has promised to introduce a marginally more independent, transparent appointment process than the current one, with an “independent selection panel to undertake a proper shortlist selection process” after which the Minister is to be required to table a statement of reasons in Parliament if he/she selects someone not on the short list. It doesn’t sound too bad a balance between openness and ministerial reponsible government, but of course it depends on just how independent that “independent selection panel” really ends up being.
In any event, the process should get a workout fairly early in a Rudd Labor government’s term. Board member John Gallagher QC’s term expires 23 February 2008 and Dr Ron Brunton’s on 1 May 2008. Sadly for Labor, however, all other Board members were appointed or reappointed in the last year or two for 5 year terms, including uber culture warriors Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle.
Of course, the more interesting developments will be with departmental heads. I’d be surprised, for instance, if Workplace Authority boss Barbara Bennett (the propaganda face of Work Choices) hasn’t been hitting the phones intensively in recent days listing herself with every executive recruitment agency in the land.
Blogger “Roger Migently” reckons Labor should sack Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty1, and somewhat more idiosyncratically also has Department of Immigration Deputy Secretary Bob Correll in his shotgun sights (presumably because he’s the bloke who signed the departmental correspondence that threatened “Roger” with dire legal consequences for daring to exercise his basic democratic rights and criticise what must surely be Australia’s most thuggishly inept government agency).
It’s all moderately amusing in a self-indulgently vindictive, schadenfreude sort of way. Readers might even want to enter their own comment box nominations for the post-election hit list.
However, there are more fundamental issues involved.
Serious-minded political observers wouldn’t even be talking in these terms if it wasn’t for the progressive politicisation of the public sector over the last 25 years, starting with the Hawke government’s introduction of the Senior Executive Service back in 1984. According to this NZ government review, at least 1770 Commonwealth public servants are on SES contracts (and that was 7 years ago). Certainly every single departmental head is employed on a contract basis, 50% of them with terms of only 3 years. That, together with a “performance” based bonus system worth up to $60,000 per year (judged and awarded by the Prime Minister personally), ensures that the days of fearlessly impartial, independent advice are no more than a dim memory.
Arguably this progressive politicisation of the public service is a central element in the evident deterioration in public and political morality in today’s Australia. A supine, compliant public service has allowed phenomena like Haneef, Children Overboard, AWB, and the Rau, Solon and now Tran cases (not to mention some 200 other instances of illegal detention by the Department of Immigration, according to the Commonwealth Ombudsman) to occur.
Sadly, however, neither Labor nor any of the minor parties have chosen to make public sector reform an issue in the current election campaign. Moreover, with his background as Wayne Goss’s principal public sector enforcer in Queensland (Labor’s answer to Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton), it seems unlikely that any such project will be high on PM Rudd’s first term agenda.
Nevertheless, it’s an important issue worth exploring at some length. Accordingly, here’s a link to an extended 7:30 Report interview with recently retired federal Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger, in which he canvases at length the shortcomings of the modern politicised public service under John Howard. And here’s a substantial extract from a paper written by Podger only a few months ago, in which he discusses his own experiences and lays out his ideas for reform. It’s fairly long but well worth reading. It’s a careful, restrained critique by a lifelong career public servant who served at the top level under the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, but clearly evidences a profound unease with the fundamental direction of the public sector in Australia:
Ministers’ interest in the process [of annual performance appraisal for departmental secretaries] varied. Some were very interested and keen to discuss matters in some detail with Moore-Wilton or Shergold and myself. Others were less interested, seeing the process as a chore, but nonetheless necessary in order to do the right thing by their secretaries. Several were quite incisive about strengths and weaknesses of their secretaries, while others could not distinguish between their own political aspirations and the duties of a secretary. One or two appeared a little intimidated, particularly by Moore-Wilton.
Prime Minister Howard always took the process very seriously. He had read the reports closely before we met him, and he discussed each secretary’s report in turn, passing over more quickly those reports with which he agreed entirely. On others, he would test our comments and seek clarification of ministers’ views. I recall vividly his response when I remarked that not giving a particular secretary a bonus one year would send him a serious message. He said quite firmly that this is precisely what the system was about: if the prime minister’s decision doesn’t send a message, there is no point having the performance assessment system.
It was evident that the criterion concerning responsiveness to the government dominated in the final assessment, but it was also clear that the Prime Minister considered all aspects of our reports on secretaries. On one occasion, the prime minister deferred a decision on a secretary until he had considered more carefully a comment I had made. He rang me subsequently to tell me the decision he had taken.
Each year most secretaries received the 10% bonus, with a small number receiving 15% and a smaller number receiving none.
Notwithstanding efforts to strengthen the process, and notwithstanding the need for secretaries to receive feedback from ministers and the prime minister on their performance, there are legitimate concerns about providing performance pay to secretaries. My experience as both assessee and adviser to the assessor is that a single measure of performance translated into a bonus will inevitably focus primarily on responsiveness to the government, and be coloured by immediate, media-fuelled issues at the expense of possibly more important factors such as building organisational capacity and developing and implementing reforms of longer term public interest.
My advice was, and remains, that performance pay for secretaries should be abolished; in fact, however, it has been strengthened, with the maximum bonus increased to 20% (around $60,000) of total remuneration.
The Australian approach to appointing secretaries and maintaining their performance has always allowed considerable discretion to the prime minister. In practice, merit has dominated and the vast majority of secretaries have been and are career public servants with proven performance in policy-advising and/or program management. But equally, in every era since Federation in 1901, there have been some whose political alignment undoubtedly constributed to their appointment and progress.
Balancing the values of responsiveness and apolitical professionalism is a perennial issue in public administration, and there is no golden era where the balance was evidently right. There has always been debate about excessive responsiveness or politicisation, or excessive independence or lack of accountability.
The shift in the last 25 years has been substantial, however, steadily increasing political oversight and expectations of responsiveness by the bureaucracy to the elected government. Apart from the changes to secretary arrangements outlined in this article, there has been the steadily increasing role of ministerial advisers who are not bound by APS Values of being apolitical and impartial, and are not accountable to Parliament; in addition, government communications have become more and more closely managed politically, impacting on the independence of the public service.
In some respects this shift was overdue, the balance before the 1970s having arguably favoured the independence of the public service at the expense of the democratic requirement of responsiveness to the elected government and, through ministers, accountability to the Parliament and the public2. Moreover, the increasing pervasiveness and power of the media has required a professional response from the politicians that inevitably involved attempts to gain closer political control of the bureaucracy.
The question now, however, is whether the balance has shifted too far towards responsiveness and away from apolitical professionalism and its focus on the long-term public interest.
Dr Shergold has defended the current APS against criticism of politicisation, stating, for example, that courage to provide frank and fearless advice is a ‘question of character not of contract’. That is too simplistic for me. In his book on the mandarins, Patrick Weller notes that many of the secretaries he interviewed felt that the loss of tenure may have affected the advice some secretaries provided, but not in their own case. That is disingenuous in my view.
As Prime Minister John Howard told me, if the (performance pay) system did not send messages, then there was no point in the system. Likewise, no doubt, the system of contracts has impacted on secretary behaviour. All secretaries are affected, and they are being dishonest of folling themselves if they deny it. They will hedge their bets on occasions, limit the number of issues on which to take a strong stand, be less strident, constrain public comments, limit or craft more carefully public documents and accept a muddying of their role and that of political advisers. To some extent, there has always been an incentive to please; and public servants have a tradition of caution and anonymity, relating to their role to protect the public interest and to defer to politicians particularly in the public arena. But the political messages to secretaries today are more explicit, and secretaries are, I believe, more cautious in avoiding disputes with ministers and in ensuring any public image of themselves is aligned with the government’s position. This is not to suggest a significant lack of courage, but to acknowledge the reality of the incentive framework that has purposely been put into place.
The notion of responsiveness is itself complex. To whom was I expected to be responsive – the minister or the prime minister? In law, the minister is the boss – secretaries are responsible to them and they to the Parliament. But the prime minister has always had the power to appoint secretaries, so in the end secretaries are also beholden to the prime minister. The developments of the last 25 years have added to the power and authority of the prime minister. And, importantly, the prime minister is advised by the head of his department, and all secretaries are mindful of the authority of the Secretary of PM&C. (By contrast, in the past, central administrative authority was shared by the secretaries of PM&C and Treasury, together with the Chairman of the Public Service Board.) …
So what is my view of the system that has emerged in the APS? I support the right of the prime minister, as head of the government, to appoint departmental secretaries, and to take into account their perceived capacity to serve the government and the relevant minister. I believe, however, we can no longer rely so heavily on convention to ensure merit dominates and apolitical career public servants are most commonly appointed. The statutory requirement for a report from the Secretary of PM&C is not sufficient, particularly if that person is himself politically aligned3. My strong preference is to require a report from the Public Service Commissioner as well.4
On contracts, notwithstanding my unease at the time they were introduced, I accept Dr Keating’s arguments. This is not only a pragmatic acceptance that tenure disappeared a decade earlier and that reintroduction of permanency will never be supported politically, but a broader acceptance that in the modern world the level of employment security previously enjoyed by senior public servants is simply not viable or justified. Permanency can be an obstacle to change and to organisational agility. But the risk of excessive responsiveness, or ‘politicisation’, does need to be addressed primarily through a return to five year contracts as the norm, and the expectation that satisfactory performance, professionally assessed, will lead to new or extended appointments, encouraging maintenance of a largely career public sevice including at the very top. Similarly, early termination of contracts should only follow reports and advice by the PSC and Secretary of PM&C, and should not occur with a change of government without consideration of such reports (at the very least, this might ensure a reasonable period post-election during which ability to work with the new government and new minister can be properly tested).
I would also prefer to see performance pay for secretaries disappear. A feedback process is warranted, but there are too many problems involved in ensuring that a single rating, backed by a bonus payment, reflects more than the degree to which a secretary supports the minister and whole-of-government priorities. …
- In fact, the AFP Commissioner can only be sacked by the Governor-General for “misbehaviour or physical or mental incapacity” and a couple of other specified circumstances that clearly don’t apply – see s22 Australian Federal Police Act 1979 (Cth) ~ KP
- a phenomenon satirised and, at least in Podger’s view, exaggerated in the British TV series Yes Minister ~ KP
- Podger goes on to recount former PM&C Secretary Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton’s enthusiastic attendance at John Howard’s victory party on election night 2001 ~ KP
- In his AJPA article on the Children Overboard case (‘In the wake of “A Certain Maritime Incident”: Ministers, Advisers and Departments’ AJPA, Vol. 62, Issue 3), Dr Keating argued in favour of a committee of senior secretaries and one or two external people to advise on appontments and terminations. My view is that the key person who should be involved, in addition to the Secretary of PM&C, is the PSC who should be regarded as the professional head of the APS. I would not object, however, to also involving the Secretary to the Treasury or some other senior secretary ~ Podger endnote