Doctor and activist

An Apolitical Public Service?

One of the ideas that was fashionable in my youth was that the public service was to be apolitical and give unbiased advice to Ministers, who would then presumably implement it.

This principle seems most challenged in the 1980s when ‘Harvard Management’ was the watchword. The facts about what was needed were presumed to be clear to the manager and his (or rarely her) job was to implement this against the inertia and ignorance of the rest of the organisation. There were workshops on ‘how to break down the culture of an organisation.’  There were articles at the time about how superior the US political system was in that the heads and significant senior level of the public service were all replaced after each electi0on so that their departmental programs followed what their new political masters wanted. 

I saw at first hand at Sydney Water the progressive replacement of managers who had risen up through the ranks and knew what they were doing by people who played office politics or were politically favoured and did not even know what they did not know.  The Liberal management imperative at the time was to slim down the organisation, and since it was a ‘government owned enterprise’ realise the profits of its activities.  In short, to sack staff from 17,000 to 2,000, and take what was formerly paid in wages as dividend.  So these wages actually became taxes because the water rates did not fall.  Stormwater pipe replacement programs were halted, the apprentice training school was closed, the employment schemes for people with disabilities, long term unemployed, and for those recently out of prison were all ceased and repairs were only done ‘when needed.’ So the relationship between the Public Service doing its job in a traditional way, and the political imperatives driven by the dogmas of the day were clearly illustrated.

At a more entertaining level, the ’Yes Minister’ series from the BBC showed the politicians being led by the nose by immutable public servants, while the more recent local ABC show ‘Utopia’ had a sensible public service being mucked around by foolish politicians. 

At the Federal Australian level, one might recall the trouble that Andrew Wilkie got into when working for the Office of National Assessment (ONA), when he alleged that the ONA was being told to find evidence that justified the war in Iraq, rather than being asked to evaluate whether such evidence was persuasive.  The Robodebt saga had public servants who seem to have been justified in their belief that if they did not implement the scheme that may well have been illegal their careers would  suffer.  That did not stop them wearing the flak later.

The dogma that the private sector knows best is only true if the Public Service has all the people with specialist knowledge given redundancy, as was the case in Sydney Water. The rise of PwC and the inability to supervise them comes from the weakening of the knowledge base of the public sector, driven by the current imperative to keep the government sector as small as possible, not that using consultants over career public servants with specific expertise actually saves any money in the medium term.

But there is politics in every organisation, from the local tennis club to the public service to international politics. (My only advice is that since all campaigns take much the same amount of energy do not waste time on small issues).  It is naive to expect people not to play politics; it is necessary for a career.  The critical thing that needs to be ensured is that the competition is fair and transparent and that the right things are rewarded.

The top echelons of the public service still have power as was demonstrated by the saga of Michael Pezzullo. He lobbied to increase the power of Home Affairs, which was of course helped by the demonisation  of boat people that had done so well for the conservative side  of politics. He then interfered in who was in Cabinet, favoured Big Tobacco, favoured recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, supported a firm that was going to process visas when this was privatised, and PwC when the COVID quarantine system was to be privatised.  (It might be noted that today’s SMH which details a lot of this has frequent disclaimers, presumably to evade Australia’s rigid defamation laws).

It is ironic that the Public Service Act was revised by the Howard government in 1999 as they presided over the rise of consultants and  the politicisation of the shrinking public service. 

The difficulty of rebuilding the public service is huge. If people have expertise that they can profit from they will be reluctant to return to the public service on a lower salary, particularly as no one will any longer be sure of security of tenure.  One of the advantages of the old public service was that if your career went into an area of specialised knowledge you were not very employable in the open market but you had a job until retirement and your knowledge was respected and used in your field. This situation will be difficult to re-create.

The harms done by the dogmas of small government and neoliberalism will take a long time and a lot of thought to undo.  

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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