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Feb 12, 2016

After years of decline, can the public service be rescued?

The federal public service is at a nadir of incompetence and politicisation. Will it improve under Malcolm Turnbull?



Mike Pezzullo speaks to Senator Michaelia Cash in senate estimates

There are public service bungles, of various scales, under every government. No public administration is ever perfect, no matter the government. But the Australian public service, which once had a claim to being one of the world’s finest, has been undergoing a particularly difficult period.

This week’s performance by the head of the Department of Immigration at Senate estimates in a case in point. Mike Pezzullo blamed the media (who are in effect banned from the department’s offshore detention facilities) for misreporting and attacked opponents of offshore detention for making it more difficult for the department to act humanely.

Pezzullo’s hysterical performance went to the heart of the greatest scandal of maladministration at the Commonwealth level in recent decades. Despite having been warned, via Senate inquiries and the Houston/Aristotle/L’Estrange report, of the impact of long-term detention on the mental and physical health of detainees, the department retained a range of practices in its administration of Australia’s Nauru detention facility that were injurious to the health of detainees. The department also permitted a policy of brutalisation at its facility on Nauru, under which it was made aware of the sexual and physical abuse of detainees but undertook no action except to attempt to prevent evidence from being made public. The result has been dozens of mentally and physically injured asylum seekers needing care in Australia.

But Immigration is far from the only department with a deeply problematic reputation. The Attorney-General’s Department received correspondence from convicted extremist Man Haron Monis, on trial in relation to a violent crime, proposing he contact Islamic State, mere weeks before he entered the Lindt cafe. They failed to refer the letter to intelligence agencies or the AFP, failed to tell the government’s in-house inquiry about the letter, then misled ministers about having done so.

The same department badly bungled the implementation of the government’s mass surveillance scheme, despite siphoning off several million dollars of the funding notionally allocated to industry to partially meet the costs of the scheme — and then gave the team that bungled it awards. As a grace note, the department’s secretary, Chris Moraitis, claimed to conveniently lost file notes that might have demonstrated that the government offered the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs an inducement to resign.

Then there’s the Environment Department, which bungled its rushed approval process for the white elephant Carmichael project so badly it agreed to its approval being set aside by the Federal Court — despite portfolio minister Greg Hunt explicitly promising in Parliament that it would never happen. The department has recently been caught out relaxing environmental approvals for the world’s biggest mining companies even though the companies haven’t sought them.

Nor are the concerns confined to line agencies. Treasury has poorly served three treasurers in a row now by serially overestimating tax revenue, leaving the Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull governments all well adrift of their goal of returning to surplus and establishing a ritual of revenue write-downs at the two fiscal set pieces of each year, the budget and Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. This has continued under Tony Abbott’s handpicked Treasury secretary John Fraser, a man who intellectually remains stuck in the 1990s with a slash-and-burn approach to both the budget and industrial relations. Last year, Fraser left it up to one of his deputies, Nigel Ray, to reveal that Treasury had made another error in its budget-time economic forecasts and would be downgrading growth. There was also the matter of Treasury’s proposal that the best way to address the fact that many multinational corporations paid little tax was to reduce the corporate tax rate, meaning the overall level of avoidance would fall.

Four different departments, four examples of serious errors or negligent, if not malicious, policy administration. Sometimes the departments bungled in concert: neither AGD, its portfolio agencies, nor Immigration thought it useful to consult with Australia’s allies over the Abbott government’s plans to dump dual citizen terrorists on them. Other departments, too, have been guilty of serious misjudgements. The Department of Defence waved through an acquisition by Chinese interests of the Darwin port facility despite high level concerns within the Obama administration. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet urged its own staff to inform on colleagues using social media to criticise any political party and proposed banning staff from using entire social media platforms if they might somehow bring the government into disrepute.

The problems of recent years suggest more than the usual level of imperfect administration. Rather, they point to a toxic mix of incompetence and politicisation that has elevated the seriousness of misjudgements by bureaucrats. Treasury continues to get its forecasts wrong, with significant implications for the government’s budget position, despite conducting a review of the problem at the direction of Wayne Swan in 2012. The bungling and cover-up by AGD of the Man Haron Monis goes to the heart of a national security incident that cost two innocent lives. And whereas the Immigration Department was famously criticised for its overeager embrace of the Howard government’s anti-refugee rhetoric, not merely were the lessons of the Solon, Rau and Haneef cases forgotten under secretaries Martin Bowles and Mike Pezzullo, the department has presided over a murder on Manus Island and multiple of sexual and physical assaults of women and children on Nauru, while directing more effort to tracking down those who reveal what is happening than on trying to stop the assaults.

A likely factor in this is a clear decline in the overall quality and experience of senior public servants. Treasury is supposed to contain the best and the brightest of the Australian public service, but John Fraser, a man with little recent public service experience, has been a poor replacement for Martin Parkinson and Ken Henry, both of whom were highly experienced leaders of the economic bureaucracy. Another Abbott pick, Michael Thawley, was clearly out of his depth at PM&C and lasted barely a year, his reign noteworthy mainly for an extraordinary attack on China. Both of their portfolio ministers are now gone, and Treasurer Scott Morrison is struggling with Fraser as his secretary. AGD is also run by Chris Moraitis, who had no experience as a secretary before his appointment to AGD, having been at DFAT his entire career, including long stints overseas as a diplomat — where apparently he never picked up any tips on hanging onto his notebook.

In contrast, it is noteworthy that one of the more successful Coalition ministers, Mathias Cormann, has the highly experienced Jane “kids overboard” Halton as his secretary. Experience is important in the APS, even in the face of reckless ministers and prime ministers. The Australian National Audit Office’s report on the Abbott government’s East-West Link debacle, for example, shows the Department of Infrastructure, under the experienced leadership of the well-regarded Mike Mrdak, in a positive light:

“The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) provided clear advice to Government that the $1.5 billion was being paid in advance of project needs, and proposed an alternative payment approach that aligned payments with project progress. The decision to provide $1.5 billion in advance provided budget presentation benefits to the Government by bringing forward the payments which resulted in a larger budget deficit for 2013–14. DIRD also provided timely advice to Ministers when it became evident that there was an increased risk that stage one may not proceed. The ANAO has not made any recommendations in relation to entity advisory processes given the audit found that the funding decisions had been informed by well-considered departmental advice.”

And inexperienced public service leaders aren’t helped by the huge downsizing that has occurred under both Labor and the Coalition inside the public service over recent years. Since 2013, the APS has shrunk by nearly 10%, according to APSC numbers, with some departments losing over 13% of staff. Job-shedding in the last years of Labor means that few recent APS departures are likely to have been of the top-shelf variety (any redundancy round in the APS usually sees the best and the brightest leave, confident they will pick up a job in the private sector), this has to have an impact on the quality of advice and administration.

The return of Martin Parkinson as the new head of PM&C is, in this context, a positive sign. So too is Drew Clarke, former Communications secretary, as chief of staff to Turnbull. Both, plainly, know APS process inside out and understand the problems of corner cutting and politicisation. With chatter that John Fraser will be returning to the private sector sooner rather than later, the Turnbull government has then opportunity to begin rebuilding the APS to the point where, perhaps, it might once again seriously aim for world’s best practice.


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22 thoughts on “After years of decline, can the public service be rescued?

  1. graybul

    A timely review Bernard. Today, even use of the term “public servant” is a travesty. Department Heads who know not, or reject accountability to Parliament, the Australian people and a service culture, continue to degrade an essential role required of a strong, vital democratic Public Service.

  2. mr hump

    A don’t these people earn more than US Presidents?

  3. paddy

    Bloody good summary Bernard.

  4. Desmond Graham

    Bernard – you left out health etc also the eHealth – theBillion + up in smoke and insecure but still persisting and to make sure the defective program is used will penalise doctors who do not use it.

  5. pinkocommierat

    John Lloyd needs to go, also, but it seems to suit the government to have an unworkable IR policy and enormous gaps in remuneration between agencies.

  6. mikeb

    Is it possible that in some cases the PS heads are “encouraged” to come up with particular advice & actions by their political masters? It’s easy, for example, to imagine that treasury would be under pressure to provide favourable projections by the current govt to make their policies look better.

  7. Hunt Ian

    This sorry tale has much to do with the infantile idea that everything should be run as a business. Business downsizes all the time to cut costs, so the govern,eat bureaucracy should do the same. Squeezing more unpaid work out of public servants over time leads to the expected result: hurried and bungled advice. The next sill idea is behind the straightjacket that Turnbull has imposed on the budget: the commonwealth must get no more revenue because taxes are bad a “dead weight” on the ideal world, where allgoods and services are delivered by businesses or institutions that ape businesses.
    A lot of government spending and tax raising that funds are not a “dead weight” at all, of course, but can stimulate innovation, overcome underinvestment, provide a skilled workforce, services which no business wants to touch because they will not yield normal profits etc.

  8. klewso

    The “political service” surely?
    So eager to serve their political masters and cover their own arses as a consequence of that pursuit – the public interest is of sod all importance.

  9. AR

    There was a time, in the British tradition, (now defunct in the UK as well as Oz) of civil servants being assured of a modest but security of tenure as well as a separate oversight system.
    They were not only insulated from the government of the day but long out lasted them.
    As much damage as the Rodent did to this ethos, it was begun by PJK.

  10. klewso

    A return to “World’s Best Practice”? That would mean a lot more “woodcutter redundancies”?

  11. James O'Neill

    Bernard, you are too kind. For example, the Chris Moraitis you refer to was one of the co-authors of the legal opinion to the Howard government that it was OK to invade Iraq, which we did in 2003. Didn’t that turn out well?
    Lord knows who is advising Julie Bishop from DFAT, but if she is following their advice then that raises serious questions about the quality of that segment of the public service.
    Someone in the public service presumably thought it a good idea (or at least did not resist strenuously) the idea that we buy the F35 plane, the most expensive and disastrous boondoggle in American military procurement history. Odd that our media have gone completely silent on that as horror story after horror story comes out.
    Ditto the submarine fiasco. Whose ships are we going to sink exactly? If it’s China’s navy are we going to escape nuclear retaliation? How exactly?
    There are lots of other examples, but these make the point.

  12. drsmithy

    The decline of the public service for the last few decades is a feature, not a bug.

    “Starve the beast.”

  13. Laurie Patton

    It is hard work being a senior public servant these days for sure. But they are not forced to do the job. However, if they accept the pay they also have to accept the pain. Last year the head of the Attorney General’s Department Chris Moraitis gave a Secretaries Award to the team running the data retention scheme. No doubt someone else made the recommendation, but he apparently failed to inquiry or notice that the Data Retention Act is “fundamentally flawed” (as we at Internet Australia warned a parliamentary inquiry in 2014) and the implementation is such a mess that it will be at least two years from the date of Royal Assent before the scheme is in place. There is a strong argument that it will never actually be 100% operable and to say that the telco industry is confused, bemused and angry would be an understatement.

    I’ve never publicly commented on this before but I always felt somewhat sorry for Peter Garrett having to take the fall for the “pink bats” debacle. How is a rock star turned politician supposed to know that someone should have checked to see that the state’s were enforcing OH&S standards? But, surely someone in his department should reasonably have been expected to think of this?

    The Westminster system that we adopted originated in a time when departments were small and ministers were expected to actually run them. That’s why there was the underlying principle that if things went wrong the minister was held responsible and duly resigned. These days public administration is too complex to hold ministers to that lofty standard. But these days public service chiefs get a good more money for doing the job than they did in Sir Humphrey’s era.

  14. Jaybuoy

    Frank & Fearless left the building a long time ago..

  15. Dogs breakfast

    The 3 main departments are the killer. Treasury and Reserve Bank are the main ones, and Australia has been blessed for many years. John Fraser is the first real dud in those prime positions for many a year.

    Head of PM and C is the next most significant, and Martin Parkinson’s appointment is a good one, but he came after another terrible captain’s pick. Tony Abbott made two appointments to these prime positions and picked nonces.

    Others come and go, but a good public service will save pollies a lot of skin, and embarrassment. I’m not sure the PJK started it, but Howard removed 1/3rd of the CEO’s when he came in. I know, I wrote a paper on it.

    And Jane Halton’s performance during the Howard years should have seen her gone as soon as Labor came in.

    Public servants who get political need to be sacked, they aren’t doing their job. Ministers offices are for political appointments.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    Which comes first, our so called public service, or the rancid parliamentarians we have been lumbered with?

  17. Dean Tregenza

    Um… Jane “kids overboard” Halton… A good performer?… Wasn’t there something about Bronwyn’s chopper-gate and the lack of process in the story?

  18. Keto Vodda

    Am I correct in thinking that Paul Keating started the rot by progressively removing tenure for senior public servants?

    Frank and fearless advice is rarely given by those who contract is coming up for renewal.

  19. JMNO

    Whilst cumulative changes to the APS happened under Hawke and Keating including the recruitment of vast numbers of economists to all positions in place of the previous broader spectrum of graduates (with their private sector is better views) and adopting nonsense buzz-word managerialism from the USA, in my view the rot really set in under Howard.

    The longer he stayed in power the more debate and discussion of ideas were discouraged. As a friend who was a very senior public servant at the time said,’it is hard not to give them what they want.’ That is, frank and fearless advice went out the window and yes-men and women were promoted – those who wanted to know what the Minister wanted before advancing an idea. Those who put up alternative points of view were regarded as troublemakers and marginalised.

    So it is probable that the APS was/is no longer able, doesn’t have the courage or the know-how – to educate the incoming Minister about her/his new portfolio.

    As for Immigration, it has been gutted of people who know anything and those who disagree with the current militaristic and hard-line border control philosophy either leave in dismay and disgust or are encouraged to leave. At some stage this Department is going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up and it won’t be easy.

    And as for DFAT staff being put into run other Departments:it is OK if they have run large divisions or been a Dep Sec in DFAT – these people have had experience running programs and staff. However those who have only ever operated in overseas posts or as advisors are all-at-sea when they are put in charge of a large Department eg Thawley and Moraitis

  20. JMNO

    The other thing is: Man Monis is a sex offender, was implicated in the murder of his wife. However just because he came from Iran and staged a seige doesn’t make him an extremist or a terrorist. Just an attention-seeking nutjob.

  21. pedant

    When I joined the public service back in the 80s, the SES officers (Second Division they were called then), with some exceptions, tended to have a lot of experience with the subject matter of my organisation, and they were great mentors: you could learn an enormous amount from them.

    Then came the notion that generic management skills were what was needed, supported by the Public Service Commission’s Integrated Leadership System. And it’s much easier to fake generic management skills than genuine technical knowledge, particularly if your current department has decided you are a dud and is dishonest enough to give you a glowing reference to get rid of you.

    By the time I retired, the SES I saw seemed to fall into two categories: the good ones who knew they had to learn the business of the organisation to do a decent job, and the charlatans who tried to fake their way through. They were about equal in number, but the good ones were thinly stretched, trying to do the work of the ones who were flying on fumes.

    As a result, mentoring took a dive, to the great detriment of everyone. On this, Martin Parkinson as quoted by Laura Tingle is exactly right. And because too many of the SES didn’t know the business all that well, dumb ideas from them could sprout wings, while good ideas from others wound up in a bureaucratic mincer. I retired, with no bitterness, when I realised that I was spending most of my time shooting down dumb ideas from above rather than progressing good ones from below.

  22. BigKev

    Senior Public Servants are seen as political whores by their staff. Staff see that Senior staff get huge bonuses to make sure that their staff don’t even get CPI pay rises. The senior ” I gave wrong advice on children overboard” public servant was promoted to Deptl Secretary. Canberra based public servants are paid up to 3 levels higher than their State based counterparts who actually serve the public. Service is frowned upon in Depts. Centrelink has a performance standard based on how many clients are breached not how many have their needs met. Outsourcing is rife. Medicare and Centrelink data to Phillipines has been explored for last 10 months. This is a country that has no privacy legislation. Bank clients are getting overseas phone call from call centres because our data is out there for sale even though we are not in the Do Not Call register.


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