What is the role of our public servants?

This is Australia’s most senior public servant, Terry Moran, last week, quoting his predecessor under John Howard:

The public service, Dr Shergold said, provides ministers, that is the executive government, with frank, fearless and robust policy advice — and it does so in a confidential manner.

I believe, as does Peter, that the confidentiality of advice is critical to our ability to be professional.

Ministers carry accountability for policy decisions. Our role is to assist them make good decisions, not launch alternative policy proposals into the public domain. We do not therefore advise the Opposition, backbench members of the Parliament or the media.

The community perception, however, is that public servants have some duty to the public interest, something beyond, and greater than, the interests of the Government of the day, and where the public interest and the Government’s interests are perceived to conflict, public servants should speak out. This is a view encouraged by the media, which has a strong self-interest in public servants doing just that.

The difference between whistleblowing and leaking, however, can be a matter of perception. And the public interest isn’t always easy to define. Moreover, public servants aren’t held to account for their interpretation of the public interest — that is the role of those who are elected and, particularly, those who form Government.

Should our bureaucrats serve the public interest? Or is that a task that should be left to those who have to answer to the public? Tell us your views — whether you’re a public servant or not. (Send your thoughts to [email protected], with “PS role” in the subject field.)