Tag Archives: public service

Yes minister: how political appointments tip the scales of fearless advice

The Conversation

Chris Aulich, University of Canberra

Some regard the Westminster tradition of a politically neutral public service as a self-serving fiction. Others see it as an ideal to which governments and their civil services should aspire, though may never quite attain.

There are few hard and fast conventions involved in cultivating an independent government administrative system. Yet there are traditions or principles that many see as fundamental to good governance, or even to an effective democracy.

Straying from these leads to accusations that the government is politicising the public service. But what that means isn’t exactly clear. It might suggest the appointment of party-political representatives to public positions; the appointment of known government sympathisers to public positions; or some other way of preventing professional civil servants from providing “frank and fearless” advice to ministers.

Despite the lack of agreement about what politicisation means – and its significance – there’s almost universal criticism of governments that stray from the principles that underpin neutrality.

In practice, the accusation of “politicisation” often accompanies appointments made by an incoming government. These may be to departments; to government agencies, such as the ABC; to integrity agencies, such as the ombudsman; and, more often, the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic postings.

Obedience and integrity

The Australian Public Service operates near to the model of a professional public service where it serves successive governments without fear or favour. Changes of government typically mean that experienced, professional secretaries have remained to pilot their new ministers through.

There have been aberrations, such as the 1996 “night of the long knives” that dispatched six departmental heads. But most governments in past decades have relied on a cadre of professional civil servants to head departments and agencies even after power changes hands.

Max Moore-Wilton was appointed as Australia’s top public servant
by John Howard. 

It is this cadre that enables the public service to remain as neutral as possible, especially when incoming governments are determined to implement their “mandates”. This reflects a fundamental principle that governments need to be “responsive” to their electors.

But problems can arise when appointees pay little attention to “frank and fearless” and see their role largely as doing the minister’s bidding. That’s stretching the notion of responsiveness too far.

The civil service is traditionally required to act in an impartial manner – that is, not to privilege particular interests over others and to behave in a politically neutral way. This is especially significant in relation to government agencies that investigate and adjudicate on complaints about and mistakes made by government.

Simple improvements

Integrity agencies, such as the Office of the Information Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, are required to investigate citizen complaints about government behaviour. They need to be seen to be at arm’s length from government.

Other agencies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Auditor-General or research bodies such as CSIRO or the Productivity Commission, also need to be at arm’s length so they can operate credibly in providing balanced advice.

Much more can be done to promote the independence of these agencies. A fundamental problem is that they rely on funding through the budget process. Some governments, at both Commonwealth and state levels, have used this as a lever to constrain agencies from following their remit when governments are unhappy with their activities. The Human Rights Commission is a recent example.

Making these agencies responsible to parliament, rather than to the government of the day, would mean that funding, and accountability, would be delivered through bipartisan bodies, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This would protect integrity agencies from direct government interference.

Governments are expected to represent a diversity of interests. That becomes less likely with a politicised public service.

Public agencies with responsibilities to consider the impact of policy on broad community groups, for instance, or to manage grants programs, need to have appointments that reflect community diversity. These appointments need to be treated with care to ensure they remain free of accusations of favouritism, cronyism, nepotism or vote-buying.

Avoiding cynicism

Cynical observers may be concerned about the politicisation of policy advice, especially that provided by public inquiries. When chaired by appointees with known views on the subject they rightly engender public cynicism about the likely outcomes of these ostensibly independent inquiries.

This was the case when noted climate sceptic Dick Warburton handed down a report on the Renewable Energy Target, and when education conservative Kevin Donnelly reviewed Australia’s national curriculum. These reports usually find their way to the rubbish bin once governments of a different hue assume office.

In contrast, more broad-based and less politicised inquiries – such as the Gonski review of school funding – may well retain their currency for longer.

There are arrangements in place that may dull the excesses of political appointments – such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Senate estimates process, codes of ministerial conduct and independent audits.

But unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Australia hasn’t appointed an independent commissioner for public appointments. An independent appointments body may help ensure that the government of the day cannot directly influence appointments to agencies and programs that specifically require diversity of interests and arm’s length from government.

The public service has gradually become more politicised in recent years. But this is a bigger problem for agencies broadly described as integrity agencies and for bodies where public perception of neutrality are important to their operations, such as the ABC or the Electoral Commission.

Institutional change, along the lines of what’s already operating in other democratic systems, might produce independent appointments and reduce the public angst each time a “political” appointment is made to such boards or commissions. In these cases, governments might finally accept that arm’s-length governance is preferable to public cynicism and diminution of the standing of important agencies that serve to uphold democratic standards.

This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.

The ConversationChris Aulich, Visiting Professor, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Dealing with ministerial advisers: a practical guide for public servants

The Conversation

Yehudi Blacher, University of Melbourne

The role of ministerial advisers and their relationship to public servants has been the subject of a serious public debate in recent weeks.

Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott caused a stir when she advocated that the number of ministerial advisers in the public service be halved. Less controversial was former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran’s suggestion that the code of conduct introduced by the Rudd government in 2008 be formally legislated, an initiative Westacott also supports.

Political advisers in ministers’ offices are here to stay, so the proposal for a legislated code of conduct is both a sound one and long overdue at both state and commonwealth levels.

But important as such codes are, they will not of themselves be sufficient to regulate the behaviour of ministerial advisers or their relationship to the public servants who they need to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Equally important is the behaviour of public servants themselves – particularly heads of government departments.

Yes, minister

At the outset it should be said that advisers have an important role to play in supporting their ministers and acting as a bridge between the minister and his or her department. It also needs to be acknowledged that ministerial offices often work under extreme pressure. This stems from the challenges of parliamentary politics and the difficulties of developing policy and implementing change under blinding glare of the 24-hour news cycle.

Much of course depends on the skills and capabilities of the advisers themselves. In my experience, the quality of political advisers tends to be highest when governments are newly elected and there is a relatively deep pool of political advisers, often with previous experience working in similar roles, eager to take on these roles.

As governments get older, it is often the case that the best advisers go on to do other things and the talent pool gets thinner and less experienced; sometimes with a poor understanding of the boundaries of their roles vis-a-vis both their ministers and the public service.

New governments often make a virtue of having fewer ministerial staff than their immediate predecessors. However, as governments age, the number of ministerial staff tends to grow. This increase in staff – sometimes very young and always enthusiastic – can create demands on departments without commensurate benefits for the minister.

While departmental secretaries cannot direct ministerial advisers, there is much that they can do in establishing a framework for appropriate working relationships with ministers and their offices.

Four steps to departmental harmony

At a minimum the framework should cover the following elements.

First, secretaries need to make it clear that advisers cannot give directions to departmental staff. The best way to do this is to identify a specific number of key senior officers to whom advisers can make requests on behalf of the minister. As an adjunct to this arrangement ministers should be told that the department will not stand behind any advice he or she receives that doesn’t come through the normal paper-flow channel.

The terrifying Malcolm Tucker from TV series The Thick Of It is the ultimate example of an unelected adviser wielding enormous political influence. BBC/The Thick Of It

Secondly, it is essential for secretaries to insist that their advice is to the minister only. While political advisers are at liberty to make comments to the minister about departmental advice, they should not to act as gate-keepers in determining what and when briefings go to the minister.

The best way to prevent this gate-keeping role is for the secretary to be aware of when key briefings leave the department and after a reasonable period for ministerial office scrutiny seek to have the briefing discussed with the minister.

Finally, under no circumstances should a secretary allow a ministerial adviser to request the department to re-write a recommendation from the department on a particular matter.

Of course there should be opportunities for discussion between the department and the minister’s office about the substance of advice. However, at the end of the day the minister is entitled to receive the department’s best advice and the department is obliged to provide it. If someone in the minister’s office disagrees with that advice, they are always able to write a covering note or say so directly to the minister.

It is also vital that departmental staff have an appreciation of the pressures of working in a ministerial office. Advice needs to be provided within time-lines that take into account the need for ministers to consult with their colleagues and reflect on media implications of the matter under consideration. Ministerial advisers also need receive early advice about issues which could be problematic to their minister.

The role of the secretary is pivotal. Departmental staff take their lead from the top. If the secretary establishes a clear modus operandi with a minister’s staff (and the minister when necessary), political advisers and public servants are much less likely to engage in the sorts of behaviours that cause difficulties for themselves, their department and the minister.

Give and take

This framework is standard fare for the way most secretaries relate to their ministers and their staff. But like all human relationships it’s one which needs to be worked on continually.

At its core is a simple point; both advisers and public servants need to understand that each have different but complementary roles to play. In framing their advice public servants should have the ability and confidence to use advisers to gain a broader understanding of the issues concerning the minister; and do so without compromising the integrity of that advice.

Advisers need to appreciate that ministerial decision-making can only benefit by being exposed to the different perspectives that public servants can bring to an issue. They should value the understanding public servants can bring to the subject matter at hand.

In the end, whatever is specified in codes of conduct, legislated or otherwise, the relationships between ministerial offices and departments will only work if secretaries and ministers make clear the behaviour they expect from their staff.

The ConversationYehudi Blacher, Professorial Fellow, Centre for Public Policy, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Review: Political Amnesia – How We Forgot How To Govern

The Conversation

Nicholas Barry, La Trobe University

The importance of history and memory is at the heart of Laura Tingle’s stimulating new Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern. Tingle’s central claim is that a lack of historical knowledge is one of the main problems in contemporary Australian politics.

This “growing political and policy amnesia”, Tingle writes, is a key reason for Australian politics becoming:

… not only inane and ugly but dangerous.

Why has this happened?

This amnesia is the result of a variety of institutional changes, including the declining influence of public servants on policy formulation and the increasing power of ministerial advisers.

Tingle points out that the presence of ministerial advisers is not in itself a problem. In the Hawke government, for example, advisers had an important role. But the relationship between ministers and the public service was more balanced and effective:

Hawke insisted his ministers should have bureaucrats in their offices, specifically as chiefs of staff. It kept open the links with the public service in both directions. Ministers’ offices understood the public service. The public service understood their ministers.

Black Inc

However, various other developments have upset the balance between ministers and public servants. Senior public servants do not enjoy the security of tenure they previously did. Tingle suggests that the Howard government’s “night of the long knives” – when the new prime minister sacked six departmental secretaries – was a crucial turning point.

In addition, public servants now more frequently face attack in parliamentary committees. The end result is a “toadying culture” in a “cowed” public service.

Even if public servants were in a position to be giving “frank and fearless” advice, though, it seems unlikely that ministers would welcome it. Tingle quotes a former senior public servant who describes the Howard government’s approach to the public service in its later years as:

We’ll do the thinking, you just implement it.

The result is that ministers make decisions without the benefit of proper advice.

These developments have been exacerbated by a loss of expertise and institutional memory in the public service as a result of cutbacks, redundancies and contracting out. One indication of this is that “the median length of service of ‘ongoing’ public servants in mid-2014 was 9.4 years”.

This means that governments – and younger and less experienced public servants – lose the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of senior figures who can remember what happened not just under the last government, but governments before that.

Changes in the media have also contributed to the problem of political amnesia. Tingle is at pains to emphasise that partisan coverage and populism are not new features of the media landscape. However, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed with which information can be communicated have led to a focus on immediacy and getting the “inside story” rather than in-depth reporting of policy issues.

This problem is exacerbated by the tendency for press gallery journalists to be generalists, rather than specialists concentrating on a particular policy area.

What effect has it had on politics and policy?

Many of the institutional developments Tingle highlights will be familiar to followers of Australian politics. But her essay demonstrates an impressive ability to tie these developments together to explain recent political events.

Kevin Rudd was criticised for a highly centralised policymaking approach.
AAP/Lukas Coch

One of the essay’s most welcome features is its focus on the deeper structural forces at work. It is easy to blame the leadership instability and sometimes-chaotic approach to policymaking in recent years on the personality faults of the key figures involved – Kevin Rudd’s focus on control, Tony Abbott’s unrelenting oppositional stance.

The greater worry, though, is that our leaders’ personalities are not solely responsible for these developments; deeper structural forces are contributing to these problems. That leadership instability has also occurred at state and territory level, which Tingle does not cover in her essay, seems to add support to this view.

As with any essay on contemporary political events, there are some points of contention. In particular, Tingle argues that commentators were misguided to draw parallels between Julia Gillard’s challenge to Rudd in 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge to Abbott five years later.

Tingle highlights important differences between the two cases. This includes the role of relatively inexperienced factional chiefs in the move against Rudd and the speed with which he was replaced, in contrast to Abbott’s more drawn-out demise and that senior Liberal frontbenchers primarily drove his ousting. Turnbull was also able to explain immediately why he had challenged.

Nonetheless, there are also clearly important similarities between the two deposed first-term prime ministers. Given Tingle’s overall argument, these similarities may well be more important than the differences. Both Rudd and Abbott adopted highly centralised approaches to government and were criticised by colleagues for failing to follow proper processes.

These problems reflect the broader trends Tingle highlights, which pre-date both leaders. However, the problems seem more pronounced in the cases of Rudd and Abbott than they did with John Howard and Gillard.

This is not to claim that a thorough policy process was always followed under Howard and Gillard, or to deny that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wielded enormous power under both leaders. But their approach to the procedural aspects of policymaking did not seem to attract the same degree of criticism as Rudd and Abbott faced.

This might be regarded as a small positive. It suggests that the personal approach adopted by individual leaders can still make a difference to the way government operates, despite the structural forces Tingle outlines.

The demise of Rudd and Abbott also highlights the political dangers facing prime ministers as a result of these structural changes.

Prime ministers now have the ability to dominate the government’s policy agenda in a way they previously did not. However, this power is highly contingent on their personal popularity. Colleagues are likely to put up with a highly centralised approach if a prime minister has recently led the party to a major election win and is doing well in the opinion polls.

Malcolm Turnbull has promised a more ‘consultative’
approach to governing. 

But once a leader’s popularity drops, this ceases to insulate them from their colleagues’ resentment. Their control over the government also means they are likely to bear the brunt of responsibility for major policy failures.

It is worth pondering whether the problems resulting from the structural changes Tingle identifies extend beyond political amnesia to a basic failure to properly think through policy in advance and expose ideas to debate.

The centralisation of power in the PMO, insecure tenure for senior public servants and increasingly superficial reporting in the mainstream media have made it easier for those in positions of power to avoid engaging in serious critical discussion and debate over the policies they are putting forward.

The problem is therefore not simply about a lack of institutional memory. It is a broader failure to recognise the value of debate and dissent.

Debate, serious discussion and deliberation are valued highly in a democracy not just for their own sake, but because they are considered essential to testing the quality of ideas and arguments.

Increasingly, decision-makers in Canberra and beyond seem to have forgotten this age-old lesson of democratic politics. The quality of policymaking in Australia may be strengthened if they begin to remember it.

The ConversationNicholas Barry, Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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