Sep 11, 2013

Off with their heads! Which civil servants will lose their posts?

Tony Abbott is unlikely to take an axe to the public service, as John Howard did when he became PM. There are just two senior civil servants who should be nervous, writes governance expert Stephen Bartos.

Soon after his election in 1996 Liberal prime minister John Howard sacked six departmental secretaries (the chief executives at the top of the public service). A rumour spread that one was sacked by mistake. If so, the mistake was never corrected. Occasionally beheading an admiral pour encourager les autres is a well-established way to ensure obedience. Beheading six is much more effective.

It is less likely that Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott will feel the need to do the same. After 13 years of Labor, Howard felt he had to assert the incoming government’s dominance over the public service and was highly suspicious of its senior people. It is different for Abbott. There have been only six years of opposition. The senior ranks of the public service still include many people promoted during the Howard years for demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Coalition government. Abbott has worked closely with a number of them.

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7 thoughts on “Off with their heads! Which civil servants will lose their posts?

  1. Gavin Moodie

    I thought that Howard’s cut in public servants was followed by a bigger increase in payments to consultants, so the net result was an increase in spending on ‘administration’.

  2. MJPC

    GM,Valid point, now one has increased management at the top of departments and agencies and consultants advising them thus compaouding the incompetance of PS who often haven’t a clue what their agencies role or tasks are.
    Get rid of the consultants and make the department heads responsible for poor decisions (they get paid for making decisions I expect, not employing consultants), leave the tropops at the front line where the work is done (not in Canberra usually).

  3. klewso

    “Our turn to politicise the public service!”?
    Howard’s Firewalls are back up?

  4. Julia

    The PS has never recovered from 1996. What Howard did was basically to try and politicise the APS. But, it only resulted in a lot of talent leaving the APS and it becoming ransom to consultants, which meant that when Labor returned to power in 2007 it was confronted by a bunch of managers who didn’t know how to formulate policy, let alone implement or administer! Not only was the talent pool significantly reduced, but many people were promoted past their level of competence: the end effect was roles and responsibilities were diminished. This is not to say there are not capable and good people in the APS, but they are few and far between in the executive levels in Canberra! And, this is still pretty much the case today. Every time there is a new initiative, the APS has to ‘contract’ people to deliver; and consultants are always on tap (indeed, many of those that left in ’96 are either contracting or consulting back to the APS today) Yet, the inefficiency creep goes on with ‘branches’ of less than 10 people managed by an SES Band 1 on $150K base salary+. The PS used to attract talent because it was able to offer ‘exciting career’ prospects. It is a shame that in their hurry to ‘trash’ the PS, politicians don’t see they are shooting themselves in the foot. So, while I would venture the APS does need a good shake out, I would also advocate it needs to be mindful of 1996 because it did more damage than good in the long run.

  5. Serenatopia

    Spot on Julia—these consultants consist mainly of large legal and accounting (private school) firms—these clowns do not only consult for the APS but have now infiltrated top positions- unfortunately, they are paired with the bogan public service clowns promoted to positions beyond their competence! I would love to see the public service incompetence slashed but unfortunately we will be seeing a further mandate for HR consultants and lawyers to bully competent staff with practiced public service ideals out of their positions and replace them with private school clowns—like the clown currently running the tax office ex-KPMG partner!

  6. AR

    SES = the permanent government, whatever the ebb & flow of those ballot fingies. As Sir Humphrey pointed out, the average longevity of a Minister is less than 3 years, a civil servant over 30.

  7. Suzanne Blake

    Cut away and fast. Canberra is the biggest grossing city in terms of average income. (wonder why).

    Chop away and get productivity and value for taxpayers or chop further.

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