Michael Keating.

By any standard, Scott Morrison’s Government has a very threadbare policy agenda. Furthermore, the Government seems resistant to new ideas, whether from its backbench or from the public service. According to Scott Morrison, the role of the public service is limited to implementing government policy. This may help explain the thinness of his Government’s policy agenda.

Scott Morrison recently told a press conference that ‘the initiatives I want to see the public service focus on [are] implementation, implementation, doing’. ‘The public service… is the engine room through which a government implements its agenda, [and I] expect them to get on with the job of implementing the Government’s agenda’. ‘The public service is at its best when it is really getting on with things’. And to emphasise his point, Morrison then cited ‘The North Queensland floods [as being], I think, a very good example of our public service at its best’.

When questioned by a journalist about ‘the important advisory role of the public service’, Morrison’s replied, ‘It is the job of the public service to advise you of the challenges that may present to a Government in implementing its agenda. That is the advisory role of the public service’ (my emphasis).

Clearly, this Prime Minister sees no role for the public service in identifying and responding to present and future policy problems which should demand attention. That role would extend to helping the government of the day to set its policy agenda. But, according to Scott Morrison, any advisory role for the public service is limited to advice on implementation.

Public service must advise, not just implement the will of the government

I would contend, however, that this limited role for the public service, with its focus on implementation, is very different from the role the Australian public service, at its best, played in the past.

The epoch about which I have some first-hand experience runs from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, and I list a number of reforms through that era which relied heavily on public service advice:

  1. Financial deregulation. The initiative for setting up the Campbell Committee, paving the way for financial deregulation in Australia, came from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet in league with two Ministerial advisers, Professors John Rose and John Hewson.
  2. Tax reforms. The reforms introduced by Paul Keating when he was Treasurer were largely developed by the Treasury, and, more than a decade later, a new agenda for tax reform was prepared by a Review headed by Ken Henry, the then Secretary of the Treasury.
  3. Budget repair. In the late 1980s, Australia was running an unsustainable current account deficit, linked to insufficient public saving. The necessary budget repair was achieved by expenditure review, and, for three years in a row, real outlays actually fell, and without any major public outcry – something never achieved before or since. This result relied heavily on a strategy to target government assistance, whereby the menu of possible savings was mostly proposed initially and subsequently developed by the Department of Finance in collaboration with the relevant spending departments.
  4. Opening up the Australian economy through removal of protection. The pressure for these reforms relied heavily on the provision of information and advocacy by the then Tariff Board, supported by various government departments.
  5. Competition policy. This was initiated by the Hilmer Review, but the proposal for such a review came from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, and that department carried the main responsibility for developing the proposals to implement competition policy with the States.

This is an indicative list only of major policy developments in which public service advice was instrumental. There are many others, but these are policy reforms of which I have some personal knowledge.

I would not pretend that all policy reforms in the past were initiated by the public service. For example, both the introduction of superannuation and enterprise bargaining for wage increases were initiated by Prime Minister Keating himself, informed by private discussions with representatives of the trade union movement as part of the then Accord processes. And the legislation recognising aboriginal land rights, following the Mabo High Court decision, could have taken a very different turn if it hadn’t been for the close involvement in and direction of Paul Keating.

The main point I wish to make, however, is that, in the past, the public service has played a proactive role in advising on future policy agenda – not just implementing government decisions. Although, of course, final responsibility for the decisions rested with the government.

I agree that the public service should be responsive to the government of the day and its priorities, values, and principles. Equally, however, there are many policy issues which are not simply a matter of political values, and when there is an important role for expertise. To give just a few examples, I would nominate national security, the economic outlook, health and the prevention of disease, and climate change.

Losing capacity to give expert advice?

My concern today, however, is that, too often, the public service may have become too ‘responsive’, waiting to be told what is wanted. In addition, I am concerned that the Government’s lack of interest in using the expertise of the public service is inevitably running down that expertise.

Instead, I think history shows that policy development is at its best when the government and the public service are working closely together, each recognising the important contribution of the other.

In particular, I note that the public service is no longer charged with the systematic evaluation of government programs. To my mind, the expertise of the public service and its contribution to good policy advice are based on systematic evaluation of needs, what works best, and why.

Accordingly, during the Hawke-Keating era, it was mandatory that all programs were evaluated at least once every three years, with the Department of Finance having the right to be represented on any review it nominated. By contrast, today, evaluation is no longer systematic, and usually done by private contractors, who, in seeking to ensure their next contract, are inclined to say what their client, the government, wants to hear.

But the other unfortunate consequence of this bastardisation of evaluation is that the public service is losing or has lost the capacity to advise governments with the same authority about what is needed, what works, and why.

In sum, it seems to me that an explanation for the present government’s threadbare policy agenda is that it is not interested in getting policy advice. Furthermore, another worrying consequence of this lack of government interest is that the capacity of the public service to provide useful policy advice may also becoming attenuated.

Michael Keating was Head of the Australian Public Service from 1991 to 1996, as well as being Secretary of three Commonwealth Departments between 1983 and 1996.
This article is republished from John Menadue’s blog Pearls & Irritations 30 July 2019.
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