Yesterday in response to some points raised by Australia’s senior public servant, Terry Moran, we asked: 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? Here is a selection of the responses we received (with many more across the jump on to our website).

Joe Roach writes: Terry Moran, and Peter Shergold and Max Moore-Wilton are absolutely right on that one essential point: the Government of the day has the responsibility and accountability to define the public interest as they see it and to promote policies, develop budgets and draft legislation that advance those ends. Public servants advise Ministers on all aspects of those policies, budgets and legislation. Provided the actions proposed are legal, public servants should advise Ministers of the pros and cons, accept the Ministerial decision and then get on with it, regardless of their personal views. If you can’t do that, get out of the public service and run for parliament.

David Somerville writes: There is just too much pontificating by senior public servants — they are SUPPOSED to give factual advice but the truth is that all senior positions within the public service have been infiltrated by people who serve a higher purpose than politics or sensible government.  A typical example is the influence of the extreme conservative forces due to the infiltration of every level of the bureaucracy. This enables them to influence decisions in the favour of the extreme agenda, which is gift wrapped as the sensible, factual solution. The Minister’s have no hope of discovering the truth. The senior bureaucrats run the country as they are the on-going factual force which all political parties have to deal with and are ill equipped as the Minister changes regularly and needs to much time to get up to speed with all the forces operating around them. Anyone who still considers that the elected government runs the country are still reading and believing fantasy books.

David Howe writes: It’s not hard to see a situation arising where a public servant feels or believes that something should be bought to the attention of the Australian Public, inappropriate government expenditure, poor safety records, discrepancies between official statements and the facts and so on. Since the public service is paid for out of general revenue then it is arguable that all public servants have to serve the public interest and I would argue that they should be encouraged to do so. The alternative is to endorse the creation of secrecy and self-service within a publicly funded institution, one that is at odds with the idea of providing a service to all australians. I am actually astonished that anyone would advocate a code of silence for the APS. If genuine service to the wider community is the raison d’être how can that be compatible with a notion of keeping secrets? What we don’t know wont hurt us? Pffft.

Allan White writes: It suprises me that there needs to be a question. Do we want an informed public to vote in elections or, on the other hand, do we want informed governments that can manipulate the electorate?

Noel Matthews writes: I strongly support the views of Terry Moran. Public Servants are employed to both advise the government, through Ministers, and to implement the programs approved by government. It is absurd and dangerous for anyone, particularly public servants, to imagine themselves above those who they are paid to report to. That applies to all public servants, including police, military, hospital staffs, etc. The self-serving and hypocritical line that the media takes to encourage “whistle blowing” by public servants needs only to be contrasted with the views of business people as to the duties of the people they employ. Would any business allow its employees to publicly debate or argue the business’s activities? Of course not.

If people wish to make decisions they should accept the accountability for the outcome — and get elected to do so. Public servants can only be relied upon to serve government if they accept the limitations on their roles.

Les Heimann writes: Having lived through 36 years as a commonwealth Public Servant and having prowled the halls of Canberra, supped with the mighty and generally been there and done that I have to say that if one is paid by the public one is accountable to who? The “public” naturally!

Why use “public” if one means “government lackey” or “political gopher” or whatever.

Independent — yes should be. Fearless — yes should be. Impartial yes — should be. Senior servants are not any of those things really. The Canberra mob — with exceptions — are often prissy, self absorbed, know alls concerned largely with their own importance and career. Senior servants are not particularly worldly of that I am quite certain.

Senior servants are quite incompetent really — that is they are not attuned to getting things done. More on process and analysis.

We are largely bereft of talent with seventh or eighth generation Canberran types running the pony club — either that or ivy league interstaters reeking of academic achievement and not much else.

Heaven help Australia if we ever had a real and prolonged emergency.

Having vented and fulminated my experiential disgust nonetheless quite clearly “public servants” must be protected in their ability to be independent and honest in giving advice to all those who they serve, and that’s us. Whilst public servants are not held publicly accountable they can not do what they should do.

The FOI approach of this present government could help here — if indeed if it actually happens. No more Tampa’s or AWB hidden scandals please.

A public secondary school principal writes: Not all public servants are bureaucrats in the real sense of the word. Public school principals in NSW are public servants and through our union or professional organisations we do sometimes criticise the state government which pays our salary. It is difficult not to do this when the government’s policy is educationally unsound and unsustainable, or if it wastes vast amounts of money.

The Department of Education bureaucrats are also sometimes criticised by school principals for the same reason, in that they are carrying out those very government policies or procedures.

We do our best to give frank and fearless advice to both the NSW Minister for Education and to Dept of Education bureaucrats but the advice is often ignored. In the course of our lobbying for justice for public schools we do talk to the Opposition parties and as such would give those parties the same frank and fearless advice. It Isn’t exactly what your editorial of 20th July meant but we are public servants whose first duty is to do the best for our students however limited our resources may be. The Dept of Education bureaucrats seem to have a different first priority, which is, getting the current NSW government re elected. It is often difficult to reconcile these two agendas.

I read Terry Moran’s comments with interest. A lot of his stuff is quite interesting and encouraging (greater mobility and inter-agency collaboration for examples).

Georgie Hambrook writes: As a public servant, I can understand and appreciate the importance of impartially and faithfully serving the elected Government of the day.
However, I found Mr Moran’s comments about the need for confidentiality between public servants and Ministers a bit hard to swallow. Ministers can only be held publicly to account for their decisions if the public is reasonably well informed about what options were considered and rejected. A ‘trust us’ approach to the success or failure of the Government’s chosen approach is only part of the equation in a robust parliamentary democracy.

I’m not one to call for wholesale leaking. But I do wish the APS (and their political masters) was less defensive about letting the public in on how government decisions are made – including what options they considered and rejected. Let the pollies persuade us that they understand and can rationalise the public interest. Mere assertion of the fact within a relative information vacuum doesn’t cut it. In this regard It’s a pity Mr Moran did not qualify his observations about confidentiality by noting that the confidences between Ministers and public servants are subject to override – whether the FOI Act (where the exemptions are supposed to be narrow) or when testifying before Parliamentary committees.

So, in light of Mr Moran’s comments, are you running a sweepstakes about how long it will take for an FOI decision maker to roll out “the APS’s integrity requires us to maintain confidentiality of advice to Ministers” as a reason why it is contrary to the public interest to release an internal working document?

Peter Timmins writes: This overall was a small part of the Moran speech about challenges facing the public service, which also relevantly included comments about the need to put the citizen at the centre of service delivery, the wonders of the economic stimulus plan website, and the Government 2.0 Task Force which Moran (the nation’s top public servant) says will among other things “advise on how to establish a public sector culture that favours openness.”

The Shergold remarks were made in a panel discussion at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, broadcast a week ago on Radio National’s the National Interest. The quote above is accurate but Shergold added at the time that the Westminster system can only work when advice including options presented to government remains confidential. When challenged on this by former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, Shergold said unless confidentiality was assured, he had fears about the strength of advice that would be offered, that he and others would write in different terms, and that oral rather than written advice would be offered in some circumstances.

All this is a rerun of arguments Shergold and others including Treasury Secretary Ken Henry (and many before both of them ) have been running for years. And often rejected by those responsible for independent review of decisions on access to information, for example in McKinnon and Secretary Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (2007) AATA1969. In that case a number of claims by Dr. Shergold that documents concerning government deliberations should not be disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information application on public interest grounds were rejected by the Deputy President of the Tribunal — that disclosure would reveal deliberations of senior public servants, would mean that proper records would not be created, and that frank and candid advice would not be offered.

These sorts of claims were similarly dismissed recently by Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans as grounds for refusal by ministers and public servants to respond to questions in parliamentary committee hearings.

I’m sure Moran and Shergold know that advice to government (other than in the context of cabinet deliberations) has had no guarantee of confidentiality since the FOI Act came into force in 1982. It is only protected where disclosure would be contrary to the public interest. The Government’s proposed Freedom of Information Reform Bill — or at least the draft, Moran’s department has carriage of the bill yet to be presented to parliament — will enhance prospects of disclosure where this would increase scrutiny and review of government activities, and inform debate on a matter of public importance. No one until now has suggested the need for more confidentiality.

Moran seems to be suggesting we go backwards rather than forward on this one. I don’t contest the need for confidentiality in provision and consideration of advice and the weighing of options. But after decisions have been taken, good government in my view, would be enhanced by disclosure of the decision making process, the choices available and the arguments for and against, unless the sensitive nature of the issues at hand, and therefore the public interest demands otherwise.

David Harris writes: I agree with Shergold’s view. However, I see no reason why there should not be an input called “the public interest”. Let me use an analogy:

  1. A decision is made that a new dam should be built as part of an increased water supply.
  2. An engineering proposal is worked out to verify basic design, feasibility and cost.
  3. An EIS is done to take a broad view of the full range of impacts of the potential project.

I’d see 1 as a political decision, 2 what the public service puts together for the minister and 3 what another arm of the public service could and should put together to explore and identify the scope of the public interest.

Shergold, I think, is saying that the public interest plays no part in 2. Maybe an engineer may say (but only an old, conservative engineer!) that his job is also 2 and the EIS is none of his business, he’s just designing a dam. The EIS and its public interest equivalent are then used by the Minister (ie, the Government, which the PS serves) in the final decision-making. It seems that the public and the media can have a role in each of these.

David Thackrah writes: One should read “Nugget” Coombs book Trial Balance for some instructive background as to the function of public servants in an advisory capacity.

It is apparent these “men” and now “women” should offer fearless independent advice to the relevant Ministers and to Cabinet in turn. Unfortunately when you have these public servants tainted with political patronage in them getting the promorion in the public service, the independence and fearlessness is compromised, Very obvious.

Therefore the selection of people as public servants should be spread across the Community at Large to embrace people with knowledge, experience and education (not necessarily at Ph.D, level) who are chosen by Public Service Committees and not through being a political person with service as an electorate officer or Union Official.

Evidence suggests business executives decline to serve time as Public Servants because their promotion prospects could be damaged through competitive professional activity. Thus business relies on sometimes very vigorous lobbying leading to the possibilioty of corruption in the process, in dealing with senior public servants either directly or indirfectly.

You do see these people sometimes at the end of the “benches” in parliament during Question Time.

The political process itself is being damaged by the “office of the Member” promotion to candidate syndrome.

Andrew Farran writes: Public servants are an arm of the Executive serving the Govt. of the day. That is how it should be; but since few Ministers take responsibility for what transpires within their portfolios these days (or only occasionally), and given that they do not have eyes at the back of their heads, common sense should prevail as to the extent that public servants are exposed to the public or should account for and/or explain matters within their area to Parliamentary committees, etc.

Much depends on context and circumstance, and the nature of the matter or issue at hand. The confidence in which senior public servants and Ministers have in each other is another factor. There is certainly a public interest in the availability of information. The not remarkable thing is that Oppositions that initiate and rely on FOI processes change their tune after a few months in Govt. So we have to be sceptical about the process and its handling but also alert to well evolved conventions in this area. Frankly standards have become frayed at the edges in recent decades.

Notwithstanding, Parliamentary Committees, the media, etc. should not see their roles as a right to pursue matters which should be responded to by Ministers, or exploited to embarrass their Ministers or the Govt., and should not be criticised when they do not cooperate with Committees or the media in that regard. Royal Commissions would be another matter entirely.

Some off the cuff thoughts.

Bill Cushing writes: As a former State senior PS exec, I’m basically in accord with Terry Moran.

“Public interest” might well be a consideration in confidential advice tendered to one’s Minister — but, in the end, it surely is the elected official who is best placed to discern and represent what that ‘interest’ might be.

Appointees such as judges and auditors-general who lay claim to perceiving ‘public interest’ in a matter are no more able to do this than your everyday bureaucrat. Best they stick to their knitting.

The notion of “duty beyond the interests of the Government of the day” takes us beyond the good old days of Sir Humphry-type “permanent heads” and lunch at the Commonwealth Club into John Kerr territory and beyond. Very dangerous territory for our democracy! Remember that proto-fascist crowd in Sydney in the 1930s (de Groot, et al)? The G-G is “Commander-in-Chief” of the Armed Forces — what if he and the military perceived a “national interest” beyond the interests of the Government of the day? Careful what you wish for!

What is dubious nowadays is that the Government can sack a senior public servant on the spot. The “Sir Humphrys” of former times at least had some protection against ministerial capriciousness through re-assignment. This should be fixed, for better governance.

Also highly dubious is so-called “performance pay”. For most PS senior execs, there is little objective basis on which such payments can be settled. PP has become a rort. It is corrupt. Get rid of it!

In any case, it is not dollars that motivate conscientious senior public servants — most would be insulted by such a suggestion. Esteem and reputation are what matter. And professional satisfaction. So, you motivate and reward your high performers by offering them more challenging next assignments.

Peter Johnstone writes: Terry Moran is quoted as stating:

he 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.

I haven’t seen the full context of Terry’s remarks but am concerned by the inference that public servants DO NOT have “some duty to the public interest, something beyond, and greater than, the interests of the Government of the day”. As a former public servant who has advised elected governments at all levels of government in Australia, I regard an overriding duty to the public interest as an ethical responsibility of the public servant. I do not however regard going public as the only way of fulfilling that duty where the public interest and the Government’s interests are perceived by the public servant to be in serious conflict. The role of the media is in my view a distraction from the ethical issue.

A public servant might well have a view that, in a particular matter, the public interest and the Government’s interests are in conflict; that view could well be the result of informed consideration or of prejudice and poor judgement. The public servant at the centre of the Utegate affair may yet have to demonstrate that he was not driven by interests other than the public’s.

Equally, a public servant might see the interests of the Government of the day as paramount, to the exclusion of any ethical responsibility to the public interest. The Senate Select Committee report on A certain Maritime Incident in 2002 found that a “public service culture of responsiveness and perhaps over-responsiveness to the political needs of ministers, and deliberate deception motivated by political expedience”, were factors contributing to the false report that children were thrown overboard from a boat seeking asylum. It would seem that the public interest did not feature in that incident and there was not much evidence of Dr Shergold’s “frank, fearless and robust policy advice” as cited by Terry Moran.

The ethical responsibilities of a public servant where the public interest and the Government’s interests are perceived to conflict are probably best met at present by the clear (frank, fearless and robust) advice to the government of the day AND a preparedness to resign, a courageous step apparently not canvassed by Peter Shergold or Terry Moran. A better alternative would be the introduction of powerful whistleblower legislation which protects both the genuine whistleblower from government retribution and the responsible government from public service vengeance, and reinforces the overriding duty to the public interest as an ethical responsibility of the public servant.

Kevin Cox writes: If the public service is to give frank and fearless advice then the appointment of public servants — particularly senior public servants — must be independent of the government of the day. In other words governments should have NO say in who heads government departments.

Governments appointing heads on contracts with bonuses is a classic conflict of interest as pointed out by Ross Gittins in his opinion piece in Monday’s SMH.

To keep their jobs the department heads will tend to tell governments what they want to hear and they will tend to want incumbent governments to stay in office. Public Servants first duty is to the public and not to whomever happens to get 51% of the votes on a particular day.

Chris Sanderson writes: It depends…

A. Yes if:

  1. Corruption has taken place.
  2. Any other illegal act has been committed.

B. In my view, “Yes” if a Minister allows democracy to be corrupted to favour business interests, as described in Guy Pearce’s book High & Dry and Clive Hamilton’s “Scorcher” and the ABC 4Corners documentary “The Greenhouse Mafia”, plus other similar and recent exposures in the USA.

In my view, the practice described above has destroyed the very clear barrier that used to exist between lobbyists and government.

But what’s worse is that despite such public disclosure, nothing has been done by either major party to stop this corruption of democracy, nor has there been any outrage expressed by mainstream media — nor the bureaucracy, who have leapt with glee on this new career path that allows them to hop up the ladder back and forth between industry and govt.

For this reason it seems to me that Fascism rules in Australia — as defined by Mussolini as “government of the people by a coalition of politics and big business”. The same is true for the USA. One can only assume that this is why supposedly democratic govts all over the world are now putting the interests of the energy industry before the survival of their citizens — as well as the planet.

Personally I think the entire bureaucracy – both state and federal — if there are some left with integrity, should make this the major issue that MUST be addressed, otherwise any pretense of integrity by bureaucrats is just posturing by ‘Hollow Men’ to support out-of-control politicians.

The only sign of progress is the recent conviction of one Qld politician for accepting bribes. His defense: “I didn’t think I was doing anything illegal”. And that’s the problem. The practice is obviously so endemic and his mates are all doing the same.

Anne Hollingshead writes: If we go along with:

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.

Then we really would have another tier of governing — one that the public has no line to judge accountability.

Where there is obviously criminal behaviour on the part of government members I think the public service should have access to procedures where this conduct can be judged by the judicial system — the other tier of government. We don’t need three tiers!

John Wood writes: Basically the view of Terry Moran is right — up to a point. For those with longer memories, it will be recalled that in 1985 in the UK, a further duty of civil servants — that of a wider duty to the public — was established in the trial of Clive Ponting, a senior executive in the Ministry of Defence. Ponting, after attempting to seek the establishment of the facts in the sinking of the Argentine warship Belgrano by the Royal Navy during the Falklands War, finally leaked the information to a member of Parliament. He was subsequently tried for a breech of the Official Secrets Act, and was found not guilty.

Senior civil servants are loathe even think about the Ponting case, but it nevertheless stands there on the record, and testament to a very courageous man.

I am a former ombudsman, and have seen the damage done to public servants when they have tried to have the public record set right. That must be a fundamental consideration for the Government’s proposed Whistleblower Protection legislation.

Mind you the process of openness would be assisted if senior public servants were prepared to be held to account for their advice. When I headed a smallish Federal Government agency, I believed that “frank, fearless and robust policy advice” meant advice that you were prepared to defend in a public arena if that was necessary; and I advised my staff to bear that in mind. During that time — some ten years – I served seven Ministers, and not one demurred from my view, indeed they welcomed it.

But it should be remembered that serving the public interest does not mean serving the opposition or the media per se.

Jackie French writes: If we are to make informed decisions at the next election, we need to know what our elected representatives are really doing, minus spin. For this, we need an open and frank public service. It’s called our “public service” after all, not “servants of the representatives”.

Greg Angelo writes: I might be old fashioned, but it is unequivocal a public servant should represent the public interest. Governments are elected the purpose of public administration not for the purpose of self-aggrandisement and using public resources for re-election purposes.

Over the past 40 years there has been a steady degradation in quality of fearless advice from public sector bureaucrats directly proportional to the control over their tenure by corrupt politicians of both political persuasions.

Having worked for nearly 10 years in the Victorian public service I have direct experience of the corrupting influences of the appointment of suck-hole bureaucrats and associated sycophants whose prime purpose is to make the minister looked good notwithstanding corrupt practices, gross mismanagement, and suppression of information.

I have direct experience of false accounting going unreported, and arguably corrupt business deals being entered into for political purposes. There is a small army of professional bludgers otherwise known as consultants who have received favourable treatment because of their ability to be moulded to politically acceptable purpose.

The auditor general is totally ineffectual and only pays lip service to process management being singularly under resourced both in terms of funding and talent to carry out his necessary review tasks. It is a standing joke as to the ineffectiveness of this office, and the ability of crafty bureaucrats to run rings around the third rate staff at the AG is able to employ under public service guidelines. If 20% of the money being spent on high-priced consultants was handed over to the auditor general so that he could procure necessary resources to do the job properly we would be much better off.

Whistleblower protection is a complete WOFTAM and is deliberately constructed so as to minimise the likelihood of any dedicated public servant actually putting his/her hand up. If you want example of this look at the Alan Kessing case. Similarly FOI is a joke with only relatively unimportant being released. Sensitive information is suppressed.

Bev Harris writes: Public servants are no different to business employees. They are paid to work efficiently and loyally for their employer — in this case the elected Government of the day.

Leaking Govt. information to the media or to the Opposition does not form part of their employment contract. Whistleblowing may be considered a different matter.

If serious concerns arise and the Minister refuses to acknowledge or address them there may be a case for whistleblowing to an independent Committee set up within the PS.

Rhys Ryan writes: I am not a public servant. Very much not one. Nor am I a journalist. Pretty far away from that too. But, I believe your question begs the question that whistleblowing/leaking is always in the public interest. The question is a leading question, and does not define the debate accurately. You asked: “Should our bureaucrats serve the public interest?”

The question should have been: “Should our bureaucrats inform the public/media if they think a politician is acting against the public interest?”

Your question reminded me of the sort of Karl Rove-style agenda shifting that allowed the Republican administration to insist, via bumper stickers, that you either “Support our Troops” [and the war in Iraq] or you are anti-American.

The answer would still be no, in my opinion. If our bureaucrats believe a politician is acting against the public interest, they should act quickly within the proper channels to do something about it, not go to The Age or The Australian — or Crikey, for that matter.

I love Crikey — I am disappointed by this.

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