Public servants, political appointments and good government

By LAURIE PATTON | 19 July 2018

We need to inject some ultimate responsibility into public administration. The buck has to stop somewhere.

What was recently perceived in some circles as two highly political appointments to plum roles in the federal public service highlights a need to re-examine government administration in the 21st Century. Not because these appointments were necessarily inappropriate, but because they exposed a basic disconnect.

We still like to pretend we have an olde-worlde apolitical public service consisting of career bureaucrats who have no political leanings and/or are never influenced by them. If this was ever the case, it is no longer.

We often go further and insulate them and their masters by ignoring their mistakes. One of the reasons why I think people are losing faith in our political system is because nobody seems to be held accountable. Politicians are seen to do things that are clearly unacceptable with impunity – and public service heads oversee policy initiatives that turn to shit and nobody loses their job, or even gets demoted.

Suspending reality, we are outraged when the facade is blown away by so-called political appointments. On this occasion Labor is crying foul. A change of government, and the shoe will be on the other foot.

In the case of Phillip Gaetjens, for example, few seemed to be seriously disputing his qualifications for the role of Treasury Secretary. But given he’s previously worked on the personal staff of two Coalition treasurers it’s perhaps not a great look?

Under the current wisdom both appointments potentially fail the reasonableness test, if for no other reason, because they are so close to an election. Perhaps they’ll offer to resign if there’s a change of government. Perhaps Labor will decide they are OK to stay. Either way, the controversy surrounding their appointments must make the system look questionable to the general (voting) public.

We really do need to rethink old Westminster practices and principles that are no longer appropriate, much less still embraced. This applies to both ministers and the officials who serve them, and to both sides of politics.

When did the last minister resign over a departmental failure? That was once a hard and fast Westminster rule. Even misleading Parliament, also seen as a ‘hanging offence’ in the past, appears to be a borderline misdemeanour these days.

Perhaps ministers should be made more accountable, facing real consequences for failure, but in return they’ll need flexibility to appoint the people on whom they must rely for advice.

In any successful organisation loyalty is paramount when developing high performance teams. So, too, is ‘cultural fit’. However, the primary consideration must surely be the candidate’s overall suitability for the role?

No matter who does the appointing, though, appropriateness will always be a contended matter. Given it’s already the case now a different process will arguably not change anything in that respect however. The question then centres on a government’s right to hire the people it needs to deliver on its promises to the electorate, and on which it will subsequently be judged at the polls.

Membership of a political party should not be a barrier to high level public service appointments, provided the candidate is ‘properly’ qualified. Nor should time previously spent as a ministerial staffer. In fact, barring advisors from subsequent public service roles would reduce the pool of qualified people prepared to become advisors.

These days ministers rely heavily on advice from their personal advisors in addition to that provided by their departments. So it is imperative that they have good advisors. That’s not always the case however. Especially when so many are so young, so inexperienced, and there primarily to learn about politics rather than because they are subject matter experts.

That said, not all ministerial advisors are motivated by their political leanings. For some it is simply a career move.

While not exactly commonplace, making blatant politically motivated appointments to high level public service positions is not a recent phenomenon. John Menadue had worked for Gough Whitlam before heading up the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The late Dr Peter Wilenski, also from Whitlam’s office, became secretary of the Department of Labor and Immigration.

Even apart from its infamous dismissal by the Governor General, the Whitlam Government was controversial in many ways. After 23 years in opposition Labor was determined to foster change – not only to the policies of the time but also the way in which the government was run. Perhaps there are instances that predate my knowledge of political history? There have certainly been others since the Whitlam era. But, in each case the pretence has continued. No public acknowledgement that they were outright political appointments.

One feature of the public service definitely deserving attention is the preponderance of generalists as opposed to specialists. I’ve written more specifically on this subject before. This matters more now than perhaps it did decades ago. Public policy issues are arguably more complex nowadays, and implementing them likewise. There are not enough subject matter experts at the senior echelons of too many departments. That’s because people work their way up the ‘greasy pole’ by constantly moving around. You seek promotion to the next level by looking for vacant roles wherever they may be, irrespective of the policy area or your previous experience.

Terry Moran, a former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, thinks the federal bureaucracy’s ability is so diminished he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”. Moran reckons our public servants suffer from “institutional stupidity” and have lost the ability to develop decent social policy.

An important distinction, pointed out to me by another former departmental secretary, is between policy work and program implementation. People with well-honed policy development experience are not necessarily suited to the implementation phase. Likewise, there is a difference between implementing in-house government projects as opposed to overseeing the implementation of schemes that directly involve the non-government sector.

When it comes to the impact a lack of subject matter expertise can create, a case in point is the infamous ‘pink batts’ program. People died because the implementation was flawed. Not as a result of policy failure.

At the time, post-GFC, when it was generally agreed we needed economic stimulus, the idea of subsidising the installation of roof insulation in people’s homes was a pearler – bringing new employment opportunities targeting a cohort overrepresented in the dole queues and making a significant contribution to reducing individual and national energy needs.

So what went wrong? Well, firstly, responsibility for both trade training and OH&S rests largely with the states and territories. But this was a federal scheme. So a lack of coordination was no doubt part of the problem. But did nobody in the department overseeing the pink batts scheme know anything about OH&S? Did they seek expert advice? What about the minister’s office. Was there anyone there with the appropriate industry knowledge?

There are certainly many areas where the American political system is as flawed as ours, or worse, but they are ahead of us in having ditched many Westminster traditions. When a new president arrives in Washington senior levels of their bureaucracy undergo a comprehensive overhaul. Not everyone departs, but there’s enough movement to ensure the broader administration recognises and accepts that things must change.

One practice that we should seriously consider is appointing more people from outside the public service to senior roles. This is already happening of course. And nothing written here should be taken as criticism of the individual efforts of the majority of public servants who, from my experience, are diligent and committed to their work and that of their departments. It’s about having a broad range of skills and experience at hand.

Naturally, we ought to be wary of adopting another country’s operating system just because the one we inherited is no longer functioning as it was supposed to function. But if we are to take Moran’s hint we need to look at new ways of working. David Thodey has been charged with reviewing the federal public service. In one sense he’s an ideal candidate for that role. Telstra, which he did his best to fix, is fundamentally hamstrung because it still operates on old bureaucratic management principles it brought with it from the PMG.

Australia’s political system is unique, notwithstanding its historical links. It’s already a hybrid model. We to need to create more relevant and more flexible processes of government administration that better meet our present and future needs – and embrace reality.

In another post I’ll be considering how we might deploy new digital technologies to improve the functioning of our parliaments, and with that make the lives of our politicians and those who serve them more family-friendly – while hopefully reversing the diminishing respect for politicians on the part of the nation’s voters.

POSTSCRIPT: This article provides a good insight into the creation of the political advisor industry.

This article provides an interesting account of life after being a ministerial advisor.

This article asks if former political staffers can turn into impartial public servants.

And this article points out that the US system has its problems.

(Laurie Patton was a Commonwealth Public Servant before becoming a ministerial advisor in the Wran Government and has advised federal and state government ministers, mostly Labor, for more than three decades. He reported on federal politics and later held senior executive roles at the Seven Network.)