Public Servant Politicians

The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) appears to be having an ideas shin dig at Byron Bay. Talk about dining with the Devil.  And at this shin dig, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (and Australian Ambassador to the US) Michael Thawley is present.

And as reported by Adam Creigton in the Australian, Thawley:

has called for a “radical rethink of the place of the public service in Australia’s political structure”, arguing that as the “greatest single repository of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t” it needs to become “a whole lot more forceful”.

Some ideas are so stupid they can only come from a senior public servant.

Where to start.  Where to start.

Public servants as advocates for their own policies rather than those of their elected masters.  Howz that for Democracy.  But it’s not as if the public servant technocrats don’t actually already behave as if they run the show.  Who needs the Westminster System when we have the Canberra System.

It is however the suggestion that the public service is the greatest single repository of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t that blows Spartacus’s mind and makes one wonder how Thawley rose to the ranks he held.  Actually it does not make Spartacus wonder.

As an aside, earlier in his career Spartacus heard a speaker explain why so many organisations failed (don’t ask for an attribution because Spartacus can’t remember the speaker’s name):

When you put together the Best of the Worst with the Worst of the Best you get the Cream of the Crap.

And ladies and gentlemen (and any other title relevant to readers out there), this is what we have: the Cream of the Crap.  And this is why Spartacus does not wonder.

For Thawley to say that the public service is the:

greatest single repository of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t

requires a belief that the world is binary.  That things either work or don’t work.  It does not get any more juvenile or junior burger than that.

Without going through a long list of abject government failures; actually let’s, starting with just a couple from the last 10 years:  NBN, pink bats, $900 cheques, Adelaide submarines, carbon tax, mining tax, renewable energy target.

But what about at what works at what cost.  What about what works better?  What about what works but can work better and more efficiently?  As Thomas Sowell would ask, what works relative to what?

To have the (former) most senior Australian public servant think in such a simple and simpleton way begs the question of how do those less senior think.

And then, with a further brilliant insight, Thawley says:

the finance sector might have grown too big, here and around the world.

Really?  Could it possibly be that the Australian finance sector is as large as it is because of compulsory superannuation – compulsory as in at treat of life, liberty and/or property.

Good thing Mr Thawley is extracting a nice rent from the finance sector as vice-chairman of Los Angeles-based Capital Group.

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38 Responses to Public Servant Politicians

  1. Tezza

    A simplistic rant, Spartacus. Thawley is a smart guy who was, among his other real world experiences, John Howard’s senior international adviser, if my memory serves. He is well aware of the questions you pose about what works at what cost. An ideological tarring of the whole public service as self interested morons solely responsible to a person for every government policy failure does not raise Catalaxy’s reputation.

    That said, the public service’s quality and influence is doubtless in decline, but that’s another issue.

  2. .

    among his other real world experiences, John Howard’s senior international adviser

    Who cares?

    An ideological tarring of the whole public service as self interested morons solely responsible to a person for every government policy failure does not raise Catalaxy’s reputation.

    Wrong.

    It exposes virtually every government function as both predatory and a racket for people who want risk free income, off the backs of risk takers.

  3. A simplistic rant, Spartacus.

    Tezza. That is a fair observation. But Spartacus did not advocate for:

    a “radical rethink of the place of the public service in Australia’s political structure”, arguing that as the “greatest single repository of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t” it needs to become “a whole lot more forceful”.

    Spartacus is accountable for his words. So is Thawley. The difference being that Spartacus is not and has never been a senior public servant.

    Spartacus did not intend to tar the whole public service. Perhaps it was Parkinsonian Unconscious Bias that done it.

  4. .

    A simplistic rant, Spartacus

    You bloody scoundrel. Your defence of public service stupidity is sophisticated in the way of a children’s fairy tale. It may as well be Little Riding Hood; nothing is ever the fault of good public servants and everything is going to be alright.

  5. stackja

    Gough ignored advice. We don’t know what advice RGR received.

  6. .

    Always escalate Sparty. You’ve just had someone defend the idiotic comments about the APS being the best database on practical knowledge and programmes like Pink Batts – under the guise of being an Iraq War era neoconservative dinosaur.

  7. .

    stackja
    #2788723, posted on August 14, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Pink Batts was APS?

    On what planet was it NOT designed and funds disbursed through the APS?

    The “advice” Rudd received warning about it was not from the APS.

  8. RobK

    I take it this guy has the box set of the Yes Minister series.

  9. Entropy

    There is an disturbing and strengthening tendency for the modern public service to believe that it is they that control the levers of power, not the elected. I know this because I fight the tide every day.
    Increasingly the politician is seen to be just someone to be managed, but not in a Sir Humphrey way. Sir Humphrey new the power of the civil service, but was not active in his zeal to reshape society. The modern public servant though is convinced of their moral righteousness and manifest destiny. The technocrats want to control and make decisions on who can do and what can be done. And the weak modern politicians are only too happy to acquiesce their responsibility. Then it isn’t their fault, and what can they do?
    So it’s regulate as the first and only option, reporting as a measure of success and end in itself, mandatory this, compulsory that, definitely banning any fun. And don’t get me started on the virtue signalling campaigns against the boogy of the day that are more about dressing the campaigners in a crystal aura than actually dealing with the almost irrelevant target problem.

    Sir Humphrey retreated to the club for a sherry. These pricks do not rest.

  10. polpak

    Our current approach is for the government-of-the-day being selected by the House of Representatives.

    As government-of-the-day controls the Public Service, the Public Service is answerable to the government-of-the-day.

    Should the Public Service be directly controlled thus directly answerable to both Houses of Parliament rather than the government-of-the-day ?

    Would that result in a more open, better or worse, government ?

    .

  11. NB

    “radical rethink of the place of the public service in Australia’s political structure”
    “greatest single repository of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t”
    “a whole lot more forceful”
    As JoNova would say, ‘Wow. Just wow!’ Breathtaking.
    Spartacus notes NBN, pink bats, $900 cheques, Adelaide submarines, carbon tax, mining tax, renewable energy target.
    What about tax office corruption, too? What about the ideological bias of his ABC? Oh, and let’s design the justice system along the lines of the Human Rights Commission – another winner.
    The list of failure is endless.
    The system we have was designed to keep government under control of the electorate. We are losing that battle, but Thawley wants immediate capitulation. Unbelievably arrogant. As if private enterprise does not know much. He seems to really be saying, listen, the public service keeps stuffing things up, so we need more power so we can do things better. Watch as Milton Friedman describes this exact tendency: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLtz60HTIcY&t=0s

  12. Des Deskperson

    ‘On what planet was it NOT designed and funds disbursed through the APS?’

    ‘NBN, pink bats, $900 cheques, Adelaide submarines, carbon tax, mining tax, renewable energy target’ are mostly the result of poor government policy, albeit admittedly shoddily implemented by a callow and cowed APS.

    In the case of the pink batts, the programme implementation aspects were cobbled together over a long weekend by a couple of middle management ninnies from Environment within strict parameters from the PM’s office. They were reported told not to tell their managers in Environment what they were doing.

    More senior, more experienced staff with a bit more understanding of the APS tradition of independence, evidence based advice, might have been able to talk the PM’s office around to a more robust approach. Then again, these days APS staff are required by law to be ‘responsive’ to government.

    Maybe the Environment people, and maybe APS staff employed on developing and implementing other bad government ideas, should have been “a whole lot more forceful”.

  13. NB

    Des Deskperson #2788754, posted on August 14, 2018 at 3:47 pm
    I take your point, but even if you have faith in the current public service you cannot directly extrapolate its current condition, where it is constrained by democratic politics, to one where it is not. It would soon become infested with a corruption currently unimaginable. You want an EU-style uber-administration filled with ubermensch socialists and fortune seekers? The public service is the executive arm of government, and is subordinate to our elected representatives and it does not legislate. Period. Despite its manifest failings the key factor that casts the current system into doubt is that the whole structure has grown too large. To give it more power just makes it both too large and too powerful. Better would be a call to slim it down and allow private enterprise to implement its own well developed knowledge base, subject to market discipline. I again post this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLtz60HTIcY&t=0s

  14. .

    The real issue is the government, particularly the Federal government is too big; we’d always want good APS staff in the same way that we want the best judges, MPs or officers on the bench, Parliament or running a war.

    The silly idea of embedding ACCC and ASIC spies in banks is just ridiculous.

    A lefty might argue for big government, but we’re already there; I’d ask they did so under the constraint of subsidiarity.

    We really need to start paying off the deficit and put a debt ceiling back on the Commonwealth. A lot of the most egregious examples of waste happened under the guise of a stimulus and unconstrained debt raising.

    Howard wasn’t thinking of funding Orang Utan programmes when he had a then record deficit to pay off.

  15. Neil

    Pink Batts was APS?

    I read somewhere that pink batts was presented to the Howard/Costello govt by the APS as a climate change policy. I guess it would save on electricity and help reduce CO2 emissions. Howard/Costello rejected it because they said the govt had no experience in installing roof insulation.

    During the GFC it was presented again this time to the new Rudd/Swan govt as a stimulus measure to help save jobs. Rudd/Swan went for it.

    I think the APS make proposals all the time. It is up to the got of the day to agree/disagree

  16. stackja

    NB
    #2788778, posted on August 14, 2018 at 4:07 pm
    How many APS will vote to slim down? If the deficit hits, then all will be slimmed. So we have to hope for this?

  17. Boambee John

    Entropy at 1515

    Increasingly the politician is seen to be just someone to be managed, but not in a Sir Humphrey way. Sir Humphrey new the power of the civil service, but was not active in his zeal to reshape society. The modern public servant though is convinced of their moral righteousness and manifest destiny. The technocrats want to control and make decisions on who can do and what can be done. And the weak modern politicians are only too happy to acquiesce their responsibility. Then it isn’t their fault, and what can they do?

    For the likely end result, look at the EU. Dictatorship by bureaucracy.

  18. More senior, more experienced staff with a bit more understanding of the APS tradition of independence, evidence based advice, might have been able to talk the PM’s office around to a more robust approach. Then again, these days APS staff are required by law to be ‘responsive’ to government.

    Des

    John Stone thought he ran the country in his day. He probably still thinks he does. Do you really think the mindset that is represented by Thawley has really changed?

  19. NB

    stackja #2788785, posted on August 14, 2018 at 4:16 pm
    How many APS will vote to slim down? – Few to none! But it is we as voters and the representatives we elect who get to make this decision.
    If the deficit hits, then all will be slimmed. So we have to hope for this? – I hope not. But the current Australian political outlook does not provide much hope. My only hope is that we experience something of a 1980s awakening. But the socialist forces of darkness appear to have ingratiated themselves, with their wild fantasies, with a significant portion of the populace.

  20. Empire 5:5

    Where to start?

    Thawley was born in London[1] in 1950, the son of an Anglican clergyman, raised in Queensland, and educated at Geelong Grammar School and then at the Australian National University.[2][3] He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1972.

    Like all good young gentlemen unsuited to commerce or the professions, he joined the dimplomatic corp straight out of uni.

    Thawley is a smart guy who was, among his other real world experiences, John Howard’s senior international adviser, if my memory serves. He is well aware of the questions you pose about what works at what cost. An ideological tarring of the whole public service as self interested morons solely responsible to a person for every government policy failure does not raise Catalaxy’s reputation.

    Your memory serves you well, but you can claim a refund for logic.

    Thawley is likely above average IQ. That doesn’t make him a ‘smart guy’. His real world experience is the public service.

    You say he is ‘well aware’. Where’s the evidence? Spartacus has provided evidence Thawley shills for statanism. Conversely, you’ve made an unsubstantiated claim, but wait, there’s more…drink the koolaid today and you’ll receive a free blanket apology for the APS.

    Limited time only.

    CALL NOW!

  21. Squirrel

    Perhaps if we had more politicians with more experience in running things (other than the office of another polician before they got pre-selected), the political class might have better judgement about when to take the advice of the public service.

  22. Neville

    The system we have was designed to keep government under control of the electorate. We are losing that battle, but Thawley wants immediate capitulation. Unbelievably arrogant

    Yes. ‘unbelievably arrogant’. Just, yes.
    And this bloke rose to various high levels in the APS?

    We are losing [the] battle

  23. Empire 5:5

    We are losing [the] battle

    The world has changed.

    Here was me for a moment asking: why did Nev place the [article] in the kill box?

  24. jock

    It is observable in many corporations that shit always rises to the top. I would suggest it is similar in the public service. I recall in yes minister when the minister was discusding attracting women to the senior levels of the service that the woman public servant pointed out that the work was easy and that anyone with O Levels could do it. From memory she also pointed out that if a journalist could be a minister why couldnt a good female lawyer help tun the service?

  25. Des Deskperson

    ‘John Stone thought he ran the country in his day. He probably still thinks he does. Do you really think the mindset that is represented by Thawley has really changed?’

    Spartacus, I have no idea what Thawley’s mindset it is, but, as anyone who has had anything do do with the APS over the last 25 years and is of average intelligence knows, there has been considerable shift in the balance of power between Department Heads and the Minister and his/her staff.

    For starters, John Stone, the ‘Permanent Head’ was for all practical purposes unsackable. Howard, on the other hand, sacked six Portfolio Secretaries in an afternoon because he couldn’t trust them to implement his policies. Under the current Public Service Act, a Portfolio Secretary can be sacked at any time at the whim of a Minster.

    Of course, a Secretary and a department that is more ‘responsive’ to the Government of the day is a good thing in a democracy, but some would argue that there now is a tendency to slip into servility and, given the pink bats debacle I outlined above, I believe that there is something in this.

    The Public Service Act requires the APS to be ‘apolitical and to provide the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.’

    While, again, I have no idea of what is in Thawley’s mind, a bit more emphasis on this sort of stuff in the APS culture would be a good thing.

  26. Des,

    Sorry, but …

    there has been considerable shift in the balance of power between Department Heads and the Minister and his/her staff.

    As it should be. No-one has elected the APS and they have no mandate to do anything but what the Minister/Government direct. For good or for bad.

    a Portfolio Secretary can be sacked at any time at the whim of a Minster.

    You mean like the rest of us?

    given the pink bats debacle I outlined above, I believe that there is something in this.

    Well. In the private sector, the Government has criminalised large swaths of action – workplace safety, tax compliance and now even for the development of plans around modern slavery. If there were criminal penalties for members of the executive for malfeasance and nonfeasance, as has been imposed upon the private sector, perhaps there would be fewer pink bat incidents.

    The Public Service Act requires the APS to be ‘apolitical and to provide the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.’

    And the ABC charter requires them to be balanced also.

    I have no idea of what is in Thawley’s mind, a bit more emphasis on this sort of stuff in the APS culture would be a good thing.

    Sorry Des. Spartacus categorically disagrees. It is not the role of the APS, in a democratic system, to be a circuit breaker or shadow executive slowing down and blocking things they don’t like or accelerating things they do. They have no mandate. You appear to have some nostalgia for a time before when the APS ran a shadow executive, but those times have fortunately passed.

    The problems we have now are not about the power of the APS but rather the quality of the political class. To revert to a model of APS you would like would be a moral hazard. It would mask the idiocy and incompetence of the political class and slow/obfuscate their removal and renewal.

    ISHO – In Spartacus’ Humble Opinion

  27. Macspee

    Public servants should not promote policy: they advise government without fear or favour: if their advice is taken, well and good, if not they can shut up or resign.

  28. Des Deskperson

    ‘ You appear to have some nostalgia for a time before when the APS ran a shadow executive, but those times have fortunately passed.”

    How on earth have you concluded this?

    My position is quite simple. The APS is required by law – it has a mandate, if you like – to, among other things, be ‘apolitical and to provide the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.’

    This mandate has been reaffirmed by the Parliament, elected by the people of Australia, as recently as 2013. It is what Australians expect the APS to do, it is therefore part of, in your own words, the democratic system.

    As Macspee points out, the government is not obliged to take this advice if it feels that it is incompatible with its political program, although it would be embarrassed, to say the least, if ignoring the advice resulted in waste and failure.

    For the most part, the APS fulfils its legal obligation, but more recently there have been times when, in order to please governments, bureaucrats have failed to provide advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence, with, as in the pink bats case, disastrous consequences. That’s why I think there should be a greater reinforcement of and support for the concept of free and frank advice.

    If you feel that the obligation for the public sector to provide frank and fearless advice is onerous to and restrictive on government, then there is no need for an APS. Its role could be carried out by a much expanded staff of Ministerial advisers without any responsibilities beyond political loyalty.

  29. Des,

    My position is quite simple. The APS is required by law – it has a mandate, if you like – to, among other things, be ‘apolitical and to provide the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.’

    And Spartacus has similarly noted that the ABC has an obligation in law to be balanced. But much like for the ABC, the APS is not subject to any sanction in the law when it fails to be apolitical and provide advice that is …..

    For the most part, the APS fulfils its legal obligation

    We can assume this is the case, but there is incomplete information and evidence. APS failures are the responsibility of the Minister who can easily hide things as cabinet in confidence or commercial in confidences.

    but more recently there have been times when, in order to please governments, bureaucrats have failed to provide advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence, with, as in the pink bats case, disastrous consequences. That’s why I think there should be a greater reinforcement of and support for the concept of free and frank advice.

    How do you know. How do you know that the advice provides was not frank, fearless or based on the best evidence. The APS are not some sort of super clericy. You assume that the advice of the APS is also correct, optimal and the best. This is a also matter of perspective and values. You imply that the advice of the APS in respect to, for example Pink Bats, was ignored. One could equally conclude that it was followed lock, stock and barrel.

    Advice from the APS is just that advice. It should be assessed on the quality of results not on who produces it. And just because it comes from the APS, legislation notwithstanding, it is not necessarily optimal and correct. After all, the APS is staffed by people and not all knowing androids.

  30. And Spartacus might also add that the APS is not just an advisory body. It is an implementation and execution body. And per Thawley, in the areas it gives advice it has not experience in implementation or consequence. So how the hell would the APS be the best repository of what works and what doesn’t? How the hell would the fat defined benefit pensioned Treasury officials know about the results of their superannuation proposals if they don’t have defined contribution pensions? What the hell would ASIC and APRA officials know about corporate governance when they have never sat on a commercial company board and taken a commercial risk? How the hell would ATO officials know about their policy impacts on small business when they would not know what a small business is, what it is like to sweat over making payroll or what it is like to default on a loan?

    Members of the APS do not have any special powers or insight or intellect unavailable to those outside the APS.

  31. Oh and interestingly, Robert Gottleibsen is perpetuating this myth that the world changed in 1999 when John Howard changed whatever public servant policy/legislation:

    I reckon the rot actually started in Canberra around 1999, when the Howard government changed the public service policy.

    Until that time public servants, like executives, were required to give “frank, fearless and honest” advice to ministers, as executives were to boards.

    That was changed to demanding that public servants conform and comply with the will of ministers.

  32. JohnA

    To have the (former) most senior Australian public servant think in such a simple and simpleton way begs the question of how do those less senior think.

    Private Willis, B Company, First Grenadier Guards:

    When all night long a chap remains
    On sentry-go, to chase monotony
    He exercises of his brains,
    That is, assuming that he’s got any
    .

  33. Youngster

    Like most large organisations, the APS has excellent people, some terrible people, and a whole bunch of seat warmers. I worked in Federal Ministers offices for several years, and generally found the standard of advice and correspondence to be poor (not always, and it differed from Department to Department – senior management is very important).

    When letters that have been “quality checked” by multiple layers of highly educated management contain awful syntax and basic grammatical and spelling errors, I question whether these same people should play a more prominent role in policy creation and implementation.

  34. As a former state public servant and then a state Liberal/Independent MP in WA, I believe you’re a million percent wrong in your views on the roles and values of public servants. A truly non-political public service is by far the best source of advice and information that the public, the government and a minister can possibly hope for. But Brian Burke, WA’s premier who was elected in 1983, started the current rot within the public service when he sacked all permanent heads of department and appointed short term (3 to 5 year) replacements that mostly shared his political views. The result? WA Inc – a disastrous foray of government into the business sector which cost taxpayers some $1.5 billion. Sadly, all governments and all political parties subsequently liked the idea of having heads of department who cow-towed to their political bosses and today the public service remains partisan and far less effective than it could be.

  35. Dear Bernie,

    Going with your Brian Burke example and accepting everything you write as fact (not saying it is not, just don’t know details). Is it your suggestion that had Burke not sacked permanent department heads that his WA Inc foray could have been stopped by the public service? If so, on what authority would they have stopped him?

    And when you say:

    Sadly, all governments and all political parties subsequently liked the idea of having heads of department who cow-towed to their political bosses

    If heads of department don’t cow-tow to their political bosses, to whom should they cow-tow and with what authority?

  36. Dear Youngster,

    When you say:

    Like most large organisations, the APS has excellent people, some terrible people, and a whole bunch of seat warmers.

    You are right on the money. The public service is a large organisation. Actually it is the largest organisation in Australia. With that comes complexity, uncertainty and opacity. And the people in the APS, like everywhere have a distribution of ability. They are all people with their own perspectives, strengths, weaknesses and biases which despite rhetoric and legislation are not left at the door in the morning. The problem is that the APS is way too large and when you overlay the distribution with the risk profile of APS staff, you get odd outcomes. This is the same thing with all organisations that are too large to manage – see banking Royal Commission.

  37. .

    A truly non-political public service is by far the best source of advice and information that the public, the government and a minister can possibly hope for.

    The markets are generally better, as is distributed knowledge and specialisation.

    The idea that permanent civil servants can stop corruption is fanciful.

    Look at police corruption even as far as being part of organised crime and framing suspects, particularly in QLD, NSW and WA.

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