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Safeguarding the APS by building better relationships between ministers, their offices and agencies

24 October 2021

News and media


Image of pen on paper

By Ken Smith AO, ANZSOG Dean and CEO

Concerns about the politicisation of our public services, improving and more clearly defining the relationship between ministers and agencies are ones in which we all have a stake.

ANZSOG welcomes open, informed and robust debate on these issues, which is why it was deeply disappointing to read Bernard Keane’s recent article entitled, Treating the symptoms and addressing the excesses in the Mandarin’s politicisation series.

The article was based on an unfair and misleading analysis of one of the ANZSOG Research Papers Being a trusted and respected partner: the APS’ relationship with Ministers and their offices by Professor Anne Tiernan and Drs Ian Holland and Jacob Deem, which was commissioned more than two years ago for the Thodey Review of the APS.

Keane makes a number of characterisations of the paper without having sought comment from the authors, or giving his readers a full summary of a detailed and nuanced contribution to a vital review of the APS.

His most egregious misstatement was that: “For ANZSOG academics, it appears there is no issue of politicisation at all.”

This is completely inaccurate and ignores the many occasions when politicisation was addressed and the paper’s evidence-based recommendations to make accountabilities clearer, better define the role of the APS, and ensure its capabilities are maintained.

The view that we can turn back the clock and ignore 40 years of significant change both in the public sector, and broader society, is a misguided and ultimately futile one. We need to accept that change has occurred and develop new safeguards to preserve the role of an independent, high-quality APS.

Before I discuss these issue in more detail, some background on how and why the Paper was produced:

ANZSOG was commissioned by the Thodey Review to produce a series of papers on issues of critical importance in contemporary Australian public policy and administration that would affect the APS in coming decades (you can read them here). The relations between the political and bureaucratic systems (rather than politicisation) was one of the specific issues that ANZSOG was asked to examine.

ANZSOG commissioned expert academic and practitioner authors to write the papers with the support of expert reference panels. The authors, who are widely published, with established and recognised track records in the field of executive advice and policy capacity, are, as is appropriate, responsible for the final papers as published.

The papers are designed to stimulate debate and be accessible to an interested generalist reader. They are available on our website and ANZSOG would encourage Mandarin readers to access and review the material and make up their own minds on their usefulness to improving public administration in Australia. 

Ironically, given Keane’s commentary, the Paper he criticises actually documents the forces of reform and change that have led to concerns the APS is becoming increasingly politicised, following similar trends in all Westminster-style systems.

It cites Canadian scholar, the late Peter Aucoin (2012), who argues that this has been the outcome of efforts to increase public service responsiveness by asserting greater ministerial direction and control in their roles as heads of departments. According to Aucoin (2012, p. 178), this has included:

“a form of politicization that explicitly runs counter to the public service tradition of impartiality in the administration of public services and the nonpartisan management of the public service.”

The results have commonly included:

the integration of executive governance and the permanent campaign,
partisan-political staff as a third force in governance and public administration,
a personal politicisation of appointments to the senior public service, and
an assumption that public service loyalty to, and support for, the government means being ‘promiscuously partisan’ for the government of the day (Aucoin 2012, p. 179).

It is clear that in this area political practice has outstripped constitutional theory, as Prof Tiernan has argued consistently since publication of her groundbreaking 2007 book Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard as part of ANZSOG’s book series with UNSW Press.

These trends were recognised by the Thodey Review and the Paper responded to a request to outline a vision of the relationship at the heart of a contemporary Westminster-style governance between ministers and agencies, which was an attempt to transcend the polarised impasse that this debate has reached, and is perpetuated in Keane’s article.

This involved examining how we have got to this impasse, looking to the literature, Australian and international experience for reform opportunities, and outlining potential pathways for change.

As the paper makes clear, the conventions that govern the political-administrative interface, and particularly the role of ministerial staff have not kept up with 40 years of accreted changes to the traditionally bilateral relationship between ministers and their public service advisers. This has led to uncertainty and role confusion, that needs to be addressed by a re-evaluation of the conventions around this relationship. There is no going back to the way things were before and the Australian Public Service is far from being Robinson Crusoe in this regard.

The paper documents clearly state why a new settlement is needed and proposes a ‘functional approach’ as a potential way forward given the empirical fact that the prevailing, unwritten conventions do not reflect current realities on the ground.

Rather than dismissing the APS role in providing advice, the Paper addresses well-documented concerns that policy capacity has declined and acknowledges the reality of contestability – that ministers definitely have access to a wider range of sources of advice than at earlier somewhat idealised times.

It highlights the need for “conceptual precision” to help build “a clear and shared view about who does what, who is best placed to do it, and how the work of policy is and should be distributed across policy advisory systems”. Fostering bipartisan and wider parliamentary support for the APS’s role will not only improve the quality and utility of its advice but act as a safeguard against factors that risk diminishing it, including politicisation.

The paper did not recommend an expanded ministerial office in the current form but instead referenced international models that could be adapted – noting this was previously rejected in Australia for good reasons and that in all such models, civil servants maintain important and respected policy roles.

Keane’s article ignores the Paper’s respect for the APS and its concrete suggestions on how the APS’s constitutional role could be strengthened and maintained – to insulate it from the very forces that Keane is apparently so concerned about. These include:

a review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act,
stronger integrity and oversight arrangements,
explicit clarification of the APS role, possibly through legislation,
support for the transition to government to help foster clarity and trusting relationships between the bureaucracy and the executive,
training and professional development for ministers and their staff,
amongst others.

Given this selectivity and misrepresentation of what was actually recommended and why, people interested in these topics would do better to read the original paper in its entirety to take in the evidence, the subtleties and nuances of these important governance issues.

There are many areas in which the APS, and the relationship between ministers and agencies could be improved, but making meaningful change relies on understanding the current situation and how it arose, not in constructing straw-men and launching poorly-researched polemics against academics providing vital research and evidence to make these changes possible.

This article first appeared in the Mandarin

Reference: Aucoin, P (2012), New Political Governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration and Management Performance at Risk, Governance vol.25 issue 2 p177-199

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