Governments and public servants have to stop thinking in terms of a single “regional policy”, understand the multiplicity of regional communities and the importance of localising policies and programs, and may not have the right analytical tools to properly drive regional policy, according to one of Canberra’s most senior public servants.

National Water Commission CEO Ken Matthew — a former secretary of the Transport and Regional Services and Agriculture departments in the Howard government before being appointed to the National Water Commission — yesterday gave a valedictory lecture marking his retirement from the APS. Matthews handled regional issues for successive national party ministers as the Howard government confronted the challenge of One Nation in the late 1990s and used the speech to spell out the challenge for the bureaucracy adjusting again to a renewed focus on regional policy.

As Prime Minister and Cabinet Department head Terry Moran pointedly noted in his response: “We are all regionalists now.”

Matthews, who grew up in rural NSW, suggested regional communities would share some of the same sort of expectations of governments as urban communities — greater accessibility, especially online, greater timeliness and responsiveness from government agencies, and less of the traditional divisions within and even between governments in relation to service delivery.

But he also believes regional communities will want services specifically tuned to individual communities and regions and decision-making as close to communities as possible. The public service, warned Matthews, needed its own links to regional Australia, where he senses similar frustrations to those that build up prior to the emergence of One Nation: “It would be weak to rely only on parliamentarians and ministers to tell us what we should know.”

But Matthews’s strongest comments were reserved for the public service itself in what amounted to one of the most forthright calls for a more assertive bureaucracy heard in recent years. He took aim at four issues: the high rate of structural and staffing change that infuriated customers and stakeholders, overly complex and time-consuming recruitment processes, an over-reliance by government on the budget cycle to drive policy and frustrating and costly internal probity and fraud processes.

Then he dwelt at length on a fifth, the threat of the APS becoming a “docile and unassertive service”, in terms that served as a serious challenge to the “responsive” and reactive public service that emerged in the Howard years. Matthews — who prospered under Howard and was tapped to succeed Allan Hawke as head of Transport and Regional Services as John Anderson struggled to deal with the One Nation revolt in the bush — suggested public servants had a duty beyond serving as an instrument of the government of the day.

Public servants, in Matthews’ view, have a responsibility “to keep pointing out uncomfortable truths even after the government has made its call”: “We have a responsibility to argue forthrightly when politics is compromising good outcomes… If we are serious as professional servants of the public it is a cop-out just to shrug and snigger knowingly and say the elected government decides what is in the national interest.”

In a controversial to-do list, Matthews proposed:

  • Departments put less weight on political parties’ election policies in their incoming ministers’ briefing in favour of “big picture national strategic” views
  • Bureaucrats keep finding new ways to propose good ideas to ministers, even when they are repeatedly rejected
  • Public servants be more assertive in dealing with ministerial staffers, and stop “bending unthinkingly” to what Matthews called the “meretricious cameo-players” who work for ministers
  • Be more assertive at Senate Estimates, which is simply “one group of public officials questioning another” — “you are not on trial”
  • Engage in public debate more, particularly at CEO level — and Matthews singled out Treasury Secretary Ken Henry for praise in his high-profile role in economic debate.

While Matthews’s vision of a public service more effective at pursuing good policy in the national interest complements much of Moran’s reform agenda for the bureaucracy, Matthews — surprisingly, some would say, given his success during the Howard years — has gone further than any recent senior public service figure in calling for a more independent-minded and assertive public service.

Peter Fray

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