Any review that contains the words “this is an important book” should, as a rule, be ignored.

Nevertheless, former Health Department Secretary and Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger’s The Role of Departmental Secretaries: Personal reflections on the breadth of responsibilities today is, for an inside-Canberra memoir/commentary on the Australian Public Service, an important(ish) book.

Good policy is under serious threat in Federal politics. On issues as diverse as renewable energy, emissions trading, protection of manufacturing and employee share schemes, good policy has been overturned or bad policy perpetuated as a result of aggressive lobbying from industries that stand to benefit. The template is reasonably well-established: employ well-connected lobbyists; hire an economics consultancy to produce an “independent” report in your favour, warn of significant job losses (even if the “losses” are notional ones from reduced growth), coordinate a campaign with the press, and generously donate to the Government.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s admission (reported in the AFR today by Laura Tingle, who has been following the issue) that it is unable to do anything about the discrepancy between reassuring statements to investors by rentseekers and their apocalyptic warnings to government of industry collapse confirms we’re stuck with this model of policy debauchery by Australian businesses. More and more businesses will work at trying to influence Government policy this way.

Part of the problem is that the Australian Public Service — like state public services, particularly under Labor Governments in the last decade — is not regarded as the source of high-quality and objective advice that it should be. “Contestability” of advice and policy analysis is always a good thing, but governments need access to analysis that is unbiased by commercial considerations, and that is only available from one source, its bureaucracy.

Prime Minister and Cabinet head Terry Moran is taking steps to correct this, trying to bolster the bureaucracy’s ability to offer creative and high-quality policy advice and best-practice policy implementation, which withered under the Howard Government’s obsession with “responsiveness”. The Rudd Government, in formalising a requirement for selection processes for a number of agency head positions, axeing performance pay for Secretaries and so far confining “jobs for the boys” to “jobs for Coalition boys”, has complemented this.

But Podger’s book offers an insider’s perspective of how the APS has both improved and regressed in recent decades. It’s by no means a dry analysis. Podger deliberately elected to be more open about his experience under the Howard Government than would normally be the case of an ex-Secretary, without breaching too many confidences. As a result, there’s plenty of anecdotes to intrigue those interested in what happened behind closed doors during the Howard years.

For example:

  • Michael Wooldridge — who evidently impressed Podger as a committed and intelligent minister — lobbied his Cabinet colleagues hard for a significant and ongoing boost in funding for indigenous health, but got no support.
  • Relations between Wooldridge and Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop broke down sufficiently badly that Podger’s department had to act as a relay between them during the critical budget process in 1999.
  • Bishop tried to block the Department of Health annual report for 2000-01 on the basis that it was “her report” and contained data she did not wish published. Podger had to remind her it was a statutorily-required report from him to Parliament.
  • During the “kerosene baths” affair, PM&C head Max Moore-Wilton ordered Podger to move into Bishop’s office, Bishop having previously complained about Podger’s failure to give her sufficient personal support. Howard’s office told Podger he “needed to take a baseball bat to your department”.
  • The controversial — and eventually discredited — Howard Government policy of IT outsourcing for the Public Service led to then-ABS head Bill McLennan threatening to “biff” Moore-Wilton during a “robust” discussion on the issue at a Secretaries’ retreat.
  • Podger had to resist efforts from Howard’s office and PM&C to interfere with his review of health services delivery in 2005, including directions not to speak to certain experts considered hostile to the Government.

The common factor in many of Podger’s problems in the Howard years — apart, obviously, from Bronwyn Bishop — was Max Moore-Wilton, whose focus on — my words, not Podger’s — slavish support for the Government ahead of effective and rigorous advice and evident distaste for Secretaries like Podger and Helen Williams (one of Podger’s model Secretaries) who lacked his enthusiasm for “responsiveness” undermined the APS’s tradition of professionalism and impartiality. This was only partly corrected by the more collegial Peter Shergold succeeding Moore-Wilton.

Even so, Podger regards the APS now — particularly after the Howard Government’s Public Service Act 1999, which he sees as a model piece of public service regulation — as more responsive and accountable Service than that of 30 years ago. Nevertheless, he wants the APS strengthened through a series of improvements:

  • A stronger, more involved Public Service Commissioner
  • Secretaries to have some expertise in their portfolio (a view Moran supports)
  • Formal management training for senior SES and future Secretaries, as well as the promotion of skill-sharing networks by central agency heads
  • The need to for Secretaries to cultivate external and even international networks
  • The need to allocate resources, and fit within strategic planning frameworks, longer-term policy research and development (an area that suffered serious harm across the APS during the Howard years).

The days when the Public Service was the only source of advice for governments are long gone. Now the challenge is a different one: to provide the high-quality, disinterested and balanced advice that Governments will not get anywhere else. The alternative is government by rentseekers and vested interests. Podger’s book is a glimpse of how things can go wrong when politicians lose sight of that, and how to avoid repeating it.