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AU: Public Service can be a Hotbed of Talent and Integrity
Source: smh.com.au
Source Date: Monday, October 18, 2010
Country: Australia
Created: Oct 18, 2010

Overshadowing the current state of public administration in NSW are an unstable political environment, Commonwealth-state relations and the influence of ministerial offices.

Both parties, nationally, seem determined to diminish and erode the powers of the states.

State governments must accept that the Council of Australian Governments will play an increasingly important role in formulating national policies. NSW must not abdicate policy development. We must be leaders and not followers. NSW must be represented at COAG by highly talented officers with passion, purpose and policies to ensure the state gets a fair go. 

The performance of a minister depends on a sound working relationship between the minister's political advisers and the department. Advisers should be carefully chosen, as in the early days of the Carr government. But the numbers are increasing and advisers are now often chosen for purely political reasons, with inadequate qualifications and experience in the portfolio.

Ministers and agency heads now have unfettered power to hire and fire. There is no external mechanism, such as the former Public Service Board, to prevent nepotism and favouritism, and to safeguard against ministerial pressure and the erosion of the integrity of selection committees.

There is an increasing tendency that I deplore for the government and opposition to try to use the Independent Commission Against Corruption and even the Auditor-General for political agendas. ICAC must act faster and not leave officers under a cloud for months.

Within the government there is the prevailing attitude that private sector practices are superior and that outsourcing is more efficient than in-house delivery. Treasury advice is essential for good governance, but Treasury control is not. Treasury should be on tap but not on top.

The parties need to take urgent action on several fronts.

Major policy issues must be debated frankly by cabinet, caucus views respected and departments encouraged to be frank without fear of retribution.

The parties must provide better candidates, with better qualifications, work experience and capacity. Since 1996, there has not been a long-term treasurer from the Legislative Assembly because of lack of talent. But I would not seek "celebrity" candidates. Being an outstanding sportsman or TV personality does not mean being a good parliamentarian. I would reform the Legislative Council to have members represent constituencies. The present proportional representation system, with voting above the line, is a recipe for electing mediocre members.

We need full public funding of elections to ensure that access and influence cannot be bought. The proposals to cap total spending and donations are positive but corporate and union donations should be banned.

The public service also needs urgent action to restore the integrity, morale and pride in being a public servant.

There are four challenges: policies, priorities, performance and people.

The most important is to get the policies right. No more irrational proposals, such as the Rozelle metro. Public transport must have priority over roads.

Priorities must not be jettisoned because of Commonwealth assistance. The Epping-Parramatta line was not a top priority.

Departments must be at the forefront of developing policies. They must not abdicate that role to ministerial political advisers, who come and go. Departments must be frank, but that requires greater security of tenure against truculent ministers.

NSW must have a strong voice in national policies. This does not seem to be so in recent matters, such as hospitals and mining taxes.

The driving motives for departments must be public interest and value for money, not profit.

The Greiner-Carr ''reforms'' since 1988 went too far, leading to the loss of security for many senior public servants, the unfettered power of ministers and agency heads to select and promote staff, and the abolition of the Public Service Board, which was responsible for driving management improvement and identifying and nurturing talent.

The new ''super'' departments should be abolished.

The government should legislate for a Public Service Commission with responsibility for promoting management improvement, ensuring ethical standards across the public service, training and nurturing talented public servants, and strengthening policy development in departments.

It must play a significant role in the appointment of senior staff, ensuring the integrity of selection processes. It should build up a management consultancy service to reduce the use of expensive external consultants.

Some will argue that this means a return to the '80s. They are right. There is a desperate need for a more cohesive, stable, ethical, professional, independent public service.

Gerry Gleeson was secretary of the Premiers Department between 1977 and 1988 and chairman of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. This is an edited extract of his 2010 Spann Oration for the Australian Institute of Public Administration.

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