The public service is anticipating a difficult budget this week. The Community and Public Sector Union has identified plans to cut 2800 jobs across a range of departments and warned of growing queues for services and longer waiting times.
If these cuts eventuate, this will be the first time in more than a decade that the public service has actually reduced. As shown in the Australian Public Service Commission State of the Service Report, after falling in the 1990s under the Hawke-Keating Labor and early Howard Coalition governments, the federal public service grew every year since 1999.
The mood in the public service is therefore understandably depressed. However, for many (especially in the senior ranks) it is not the prospect of cuts that is the worry. Experienced public servants have been there before. The Costello budget in 1996, the Keating budgets of the late 1980s, had much larger impacts on the public service than anything now planned. The public service still managed through.
What is more of a concern for many in the public service today is the climate of inaction and avoidance of risk that pervades almost everything they do.
It is in part because of the media cycle. A huge amount of public service effort is now devoted to spin. Departments such as Defence, Immigration and Human Services have whole divisions devoted to nothing but public affairs, or spin doctoring. There are literally hundreds of public servants in these areas — in the case of Defence, more than 200.
It was a trend started under Howard but continued by Labor. Winning the daily news battle has become more important for many ministers than good policy.
Not that this always works in favour of ministers. Defence, for example, seems to have evolved a system whereby it’s the minister who is responsible for bad news and controversy while the departmental people try to put their own department in the best light. But that’s a more complicated story for another day.
In addition to the media cycle is a plethora of new public service regulation, both internal and for the rest of the Australian community. It is making policy implementation more difficult, focused as it is on processes rather than results.
As a result, the performance of the public service is patchy at best.
In some departments, a determined minister with an agenda can still prevail. Their public servants love it. They can get on with doing something useful. Broadband and Communications for example continues to pump out reviews, policy changes, broadband networks (whether one likes the idea or not, at least the rollout of the NBN is a sign of life). Being in a department that has ideas and works to implement them is invigorating and motivating for public servants.
In others, where the aim of the senior leadership and minister is to stop anything happening — for fear that whatever happens might go wrong — the public service is demotivated and demoralised. Staff cuts in these departments may not be too difficult to achieve. Staff want to leave anyway.
The question is whether a circuit breaker can be found to help the public service out of the doldrums and to focus on performance.
A bill is before the parliament to amend the Public Service Act 1999. The explanatory memorandum describes the proposed changes. Among the most important of these is a revised statement of public service values. The values set out what the parliament (and by extension, the people of Australia) expect from their public service.
The new values replace the current act’s 15 detailed “values” — several of which are not in fact values but prescriptions for how work should be done. They were the product of political compromises reached to get the Public Service Act through the Senate in 1999, and it shows. The old values were notable for the fact that almost nobody in the public service could remember them, making them difficult to apply in practice.
The new values proposed are that the public service is: committed to service, ethical, respectful, accountable; and impartial. The proposed legislation provides a further explanation of what each of these means.
In an insightful column on WA Today, former WA premier and now public administration professor Geoff Gallop addresses these changed values. He asks “is it not the responsibility of the public service to support the policies of the government of the day? What is the point of saying they should be impartial? They aren’t and we don’t expect them to be; what we expect them to be is professional and apolitical”.
He goes on to suggest that “governments have a right to expect their public service to support the implementation of their policies with professionalism and energy”. That kind of implementation is desperately needed.
The present government proudly proclaims its record of passing more than 300 pieces of legislation through the parliament.
That is fine as far as it goes. It is a pleasing statistic for legislators and lawyers. However, legislation is worthless unless it is implemented well.
That’s where the public service comes in. The government relies on the public service to implement legislation effectively, so that its intentions can become reality.
The next big test will be the carbon tax. If it is implemented well, then it will be a tremendous fillip for the reputation of the public service. If not, then morale not only among those charged with this policy but across the public service will fall.
In rolling out the new values, the public service leadership has an opportunity to reinvigorate the idea that the public service is there to service. It remains an open question whether the political environment in which they work will allow this to happen.