PM&C head Terry Moran has heralded a return to more centralised Public Service as part of an effort to strengthen the APS and its capacity for high-quality advice.

In a major speech to the Institute of Public Administration last week, Moran, who has deliberately kept a lower profile than his Howard-era predecessors, said the Public Service needed to overcome “critical weaknesses” as part his goal of the APS becoming the world’s best public service.

He also reiterated the imperative of serving the Government of the day, deliberately echoing the views of his immediate predecessor, Peter Shergold. In pointed words that reflect sensitivities arising from the Godwin Grech business, Moran said:

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 public service only serves the Parliament in specified and limited ways.

Moran’s point is an important one, and addressed an ongoing, and widespread, misapprehension about the role of the Public Service. There persists, even amongst some bureaucrats, and particularly in the press, a view that the Public Service serves the public interest. Michelle Grattan expressed this when she criticised Moran on the weekend for ignoring the Public Service’s “obligations to the public”.

While this sounds good, it is a dangerously anti-democractic notion. As Moran noted, elected officials have obligations to the public, not bureaucrats, who are merely appointed officials and never face voters. Public servants are no better at understanding what “the public interest” is than anyone else. That is the role of the politicians they serve, who stand or fall by whether the public thinks they are doing a good job. The Public Service serves the public interest by serving the Government of the day as well as possible; if that Government performs poorly, it is up to the public to throw them out.

That doesn’t mean that public servants don’t act ethically and with propriety, or blow the whistle when others fail to do so and there is no recourse within the system. But it does mean accepting, providing good advice on and faithfully implementing the agenda of the Government of the day.

Having tackled that issue, Moran identified four areas of concern to him, and flagged what will be a major change in direction from that of the last two decades. He believes that there is too much “silo” thinking in the APS and wants greater cross-portfolio policy development, and a great emphasis on a single APS, with links to other bureaucracies and to the private sector.

The APS still generates too much policy within single departments and agencies to address challenges that span a range of departments and agencies. We need to shake up our old structures and practices by creating policy teams within and across departments — both to increase the competition of ideas within the APS, and to ensure we have the right people for the right problem. We are one-APS, and in my view we need to bring more meaning to that statement. The APS is not a collection of separate institutions. It is a mutually reinforcing and cohesive whole.

Moran specifically spoke about enabling greater mobility across departments, with no sacrifice of conditions or salary.

This represents a major reversal of two decades of decentralisation in the APS, which began under the Keating Government and accelerated under Howard. While certain core conditions remained service-wide, over two decades significant salary differentials emerged between agencies for the same level of and type of work.

As with most management fashions, the pendulum was always destined to swing back toward more centralisation, and it began in the Howard Government’s last term, with a switch to whole-of-Government policy coordination on indigenous affairs. However, it accelerated substantially with Lindsay Tanner’s adoption of the Gershon Report on IT procurement, which emphasised the significant savings possible from centralised procurement.

Moran has previously made known his concern that policy development capacity was uneven across the APS, a legacy — although he has never said this outright – of the Howard Government’s lack of interest in genuine policy debate. His primary means of remedying this is to strengthen the quality of the next generation of APS leaders, targeting Divisions Heads and Deputy Secretaries. And Moran has recently launched a major cross-departmental recruitment process – in fact it advertised in the papers last weekend —to lure non-APS executives into the Public service at the SES Band 2 level, which is one level below Deputy Secretary.

With senior SES ranks almost invariably filled by APS promotees or transfers of senior state bureaucrats, the new process represents a major effort to attract external skills from the corporate and academic sectors, men and women who may be weak on APS process but are likely to bring a more outcomes-focussed attitude to policy development and delivery.

Moran has also separately said he wants consultants to provide not merely a specialist advisory resource for the bureaucracy but to enable a transfer of private sector skills while they’re working with public servants.

Moran flagged in the speech that he wants an end to the growing division between policy development and policy delivery agencies, which has meant policy areas (invariably in Canberra) have lost touch with issues arising in service delivery out in Australian communities. “If that means deputy secretaries spend a week staffing the Centrelink claims desk in Murray Bridge, or perhaps in a Medicare office,” he said, “we will all benefit from their experiences.” But that process should also involve input from public servants involved in service delivery.

Moran wants a more “citizen-focussed” public service, discussing more personalised, mobile services potentially delivered through cross-portfolio delivery mechanisms in smaller communities. He also lamented certain critical skill shortages in the APS, and in particularly complained about a failure to recruit “creative thinkers” in addition to more traditional weaknesses like financial skills.”Creative thinkers”, though, can look an awful lot like an indulgence when departmental budgets are under pressure, which they are now and will continue to be for some time. And many line areas in Canberra don’t take kindly to too much creativity.

The Moran Revolution is underway, but it may not be rapid.