Apr 17, 2018

Does anyone in the Australian public service get held to account?

Bungles are becoming increasingly commonplace in the public service but no one ever seems to be held to account for them, reflecting how poorly bureaucrats manage underperformance.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Peter Dutton (left) and disgraced public servant Roman Quaedvlieg (right).

To the extent that it wasn't clear before, it should be now: the once-respected public service has a major problem around competence.

We've been tracking the growing problem of public service bungling for a couple of years now, and the evidence is that things are getting worse, not better. The highest profile public service casualty of recent times has been Border Force's Roman Quaedvlieg, but his dismissal wasn't the result of underperformance. The comprehensive failure of the agriculture department to effectively regulate live export companies for animal welfare, revealed by the decade-long non-compliance of sheep exporter Emanuel Exports, led to the relevant minister publicly savaging his own bureaucrats for their failure to do their jobs properly. No one at agriculture will, as far as we know, be held to account for the failure, though. Bureaucrats there will just endure the humiliation of having Attorney-General's staff come in and give them lessons on how to regulate properly.

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43 thoughts on “Does anyone in the Australian public service get held to account?

  1. Ruv Draba

    I’ve consulted with the Federal APS for over 20 years, Bernard. In my view there are some skills issues, but also significant internal accountability. I’ve seen people moved for conspicuous under-performance, especially at senior levels, and the churn of senior public servants that you can notice in Senate Estimates may in part be testimony to that. The old joke is that if you do ten things and get nine of them right and one wrong, in the private sector your score is ‘nine’ — in the APS, it’s ‘minus one’. I’ve seen plenty of evidence thereof.

    The APS works in a treacherous, shifting environment unlike any I’ve seen sustained by the private sector. Rushed policies driven by Utopia-style ‘announcables’, politically over-constrained problems, conflicting and outdated legislation, the politicisation of professionals expected to be neutral, an acute dearth of commercial and hands-on sectoral skills, the challenge of resourcing changing skills in an environment where ‘efficiency dividends’ are levied each year so that people are judged by price rather than capability, constant Machinery of Government restructures, and the integrity of major procurements at risk from private sector grey gifts (especially sinecure consultancies for senior figures) make it a tangled environ in which to perform.

    Arguably, there are sometimes public servants who should be named and shamed; I’ve known of a few whom I believe should have been jailed but weren’t; and some I was glad to hear were fired and marched from their building. But as tempting as it might be at times to charge through with a stick, I’m not myself clear on who should wield it. It certainly can’t be Parliament, who already do too much blame-shifting; in my opinion the Australian National Audit Office lacks both skills and appetite; and I don’t believe Attorney General’s has anything like the management experience you seem to think.

    I think there does need to be HR reform in the APS; there certainly needs to be some moratorium on post-APS conflict-of-interest employment just as Parliamentarians (are supposed to) have. But that has to take place in a different political environment than the one the APS currently inhabits. In my view a Stick of Vengeance would just be more of the same: fear and blame-shifting in a workplace already suffering too much from that.

    I think we could begin by looking at how Parliament engages, and then talk about the right kind of strategic resourcing, integrity, performance frameworks and accountability. Though not nearly as melodramatic, that’s the approach that as both a citizen and as a professional engaged to help prevent and solve problems, I’d most like to see.

    1. MJM

      Great comment. Measured, pointed and well-informed.

      I thought Bernard’s last para underscored the problem. The present ministry is barely competent – the worst I can recall in the 48 years I have lived in Canberra. They do not want to be shown up or contradicted and even a modicum of public service competence would easily achieve both. The presence of so many “political advisers”, who are outside public service traditions, laws and obligations but who do have the ministers’ attentive ears, also adds layers of complication. I would certainly not want to be held responsible for a minister’s actions taken on the advice of a political adviser rather than a public servant.

      Then there are the political appointments – to the ABC, the NBN, the AFP – people appointed to do ministerial bidding and hollow out organisations which might question government actions or, heaven forfend, take action on some.

      And where people are competent, Senate committee members feel free to ask absurd question and to insult. Who’d want to follow the Gillian Triggs example?

    2. leon knight

      Brilliant comment, well done..!!
      I reckon a lot of rot set in in 1975, courtesy of one Malcolm Fraser with scant regard for proper process, and John Howard went a lot further but with considerably more cunning.
      The current crew are completely incompetent but certainly not lacking in cunning, greed and mendacity.

  2. Bobby

    It’s not like there’s any accountability in government anymore. (see e.g. Michaelia Cash). So why would anyone expect any in the organisations they run?

    1. Peter Wileman

      What sanction has Cash paid?

      1. Bobby

        English your second language Peter?

        1. kyle Hargraves

          Your own question has omitted the singular present indicative of (to) be; namely “is”. That omission aside, I think it is fairly obvious that the question was intended as “What sanction has Cash incurred”? Having written that, regarding the pages of Crikey, the word “as” proxies as the word “because” (where no comparison exists) and even some of the reporters are unclear on words such as conservative, liberal-anything or indeed antisemitism.

          Only god could imagine how the world “oriental” would be received nowadays. I think it was Churchill was the last person in parliament to use the world correctly (in 1909) but, we’re in luck, there is Said’s book on the topic : Orientalism (published in the late 70s)

  3. Yclept

    The LNP has managed to corporatise these departments, so it’s just like private enterprise where you pretend problems don’t occur and just look after damage control.

  4. Richard Shortt

    Is the issue being held to account, or competence? If competence is the root cause of the need to hold to account then possibly we are seeing the result of the politically anointed public servants as opposed to the ‘old school’ professional secretary/bureaucrat model. Now public servants shift quickly because of saying the right thing on behalf of the right person, or as in the military doing the right thing for the right people.

    Political anointing does not take into account competency, it’s about paying backing favours. When it goes wrong you then have to quietly move them on, otherwise your coat tail is entangled with the mess.

  5. RoscoHill

    Well about time we poured some light on the Public Service. Congratulations to David Littleproud in ramping up the Anti on the AG Department. Complains have been coming to them for a long time about Live Cattle Exports and Joyce has long ignored them and probably encouraged the department heads to do the same. We, the public pay their over large salaries and Super. Why cant the government push through to productivity changes? Well because yes minister is alive and well. Just a few issues Fire fighting foam contamination, Immigration offshore detention center cost blow outs, Immigration poor responses to request for sick detainees in the detention centers for urgent transfers to Australia for urgent medical intervention, The Filing cabinet papers issue, Ignoring Defence spending by the Minister after very serious ANAO’s criticism. Hell no one can shake them up. I am no dictator but generally speaking culling one in four public servants may scare them in to doing a good solid days work. There is a lot of deadwood. Centrelink top management is filled with them, they are stuck in very old technology ideas no wonder the IT expert Turnbull employed to sort the whole of government out walked away.

  6. redfernhood

    The public service is held to account rigorously. But the public can’t see a bit of it: and the political process has it more and more both ways.
    Ministers have done away with ministerial responsibility: at every opportunity they point to advice from, or performance by, the public service as the reason for problems. But the same Ministers also insist vigorously on the impropriety of public servants telling what advice they gave, and insist before Estimates that their public servants defer or omit answers (breaching parliamentary privilege and the Minister’s duty to account).
    Suppose a party comes to government with a policy to be implemented by a method, and with some detail, that will undercut the intent. The public service helps fix the detail and adopt a better method. Perhaps, from a particularly honest Minister, someone will get a private pat on the back. But in the next news drop the same public servants will read how their whiteanting of the policy was fixed by a vigilant Minister or ministerial staffer…pointing to the original problems as what the public service put up, and the fix as what the Minister or staffer did. This is normal.
    While Ministers can lie with impunity about what advice they received, when, and what they commanded, it is the public service that will appear to be incompetent and immune from consequences. It is actually the Ministers who are both.
    Your last paragraph gets nearest the point. There are few consequences for public service stuff-ups that suit the government…because, generally, they weren’t public service stuff-ups. Instead, they were straightforward application of covert Ministerial orders covered up by misallocating responsibility to the, apparently immune, public service.
    But don’t release information that should be freely available under FoI, if it doesn’t help the government. The IPA member running the Public Service Commission will have you prosecuted within an inch of your life. Don’t tell what the Cabinet submissions, or the departmental comments on them, really said. And don’t show a disinterested competence in doing what Parliament has commanded. That’s not being responsive and agile.

  7. Terry of Tuggeranong

    Underperformance in the Australian Federal Public Service is directly related to the performance and standing of the government of the day – currently both are at an arguably all-time low level

  8. [email protected]

    We don’t oven hold our politicians accountable because of all the wriggle-room they’ve put in place such as deny, deny, deny, hope it blows over, hold an inquiry when it doesn’t, delay, delay, delay, & then virtually ignore the recommendations. Rinse & repeat,

  9. graeme higgins

    Good lord – tracking for the last 2 years…
    Has anyone looked at the defence departments efforts over the last two decades?

    Perhaps you can role the defence debacles in with the public service incompetences and get enough money back (lol) to build one working helicopter……..

  10. Smit

    I wonder if the problem dates back to Paul Keating, who, if my recollection is correct, introduced the senior public service with contract employment.
    The result is rampant managerialism with low technical content and easy capture by politicians and industry. In a mines department I know well all senior management are recruited from the former staff of a particular mining multinational.
    The old system of seniority had its problems but corruption by political process was much less common and most managers were both competent and experienced.
    I spoke to a regional director (newly arrived from Health) about the importance of training staff in technical matters. He replied that new staff had 2 weeks training, surely that was enough. I pointed out that that training was in departmental admin systems and had nothing to do with whether a mine was going to take water from adjacent farmers.

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