Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on Public Policy 6 - A View from the Past

Photo: Brassey House, Canberra

Note to readers: This is one of a series of posts discussing changes in public administration and their impact on public policy. Each post has a full list of posts at the end. You may care to start at the introductory post and then follow through.

In my last post in this series I spoke of the spread of the New Zealand model of public administration, starting with its adoption in New South Wales. I now want to take some current examples of the application of the model in practice. However, in doing so I face a problem.

The constructs and language built into the model have become so pervasive, so accepted, that it can be hard for people to see the sometimes subtle differences between current orthodoxy and past views. This can make it hard for them to see the ways in which current approaches to public administration affect the development of public policy for both better and worse.

I recently asked some NSW colleagues to define the difference between strategy and policy. They had some difficulty in doing so.

NSW public servants live in a world of strategies, plans and action items, a world of cascading performance agreements that are meant to specify what each person will do in the immediate future.

This is a very different world from that I found when I first joined the Commonwealth Public Service. For that reason, I thought that it might be helpful in this series if I described that past world to provide a counterpoint to discussions of the present. The material that follows is partially autobiographical because I am providing a personal perspective.


The Commonwealth Public Service recruiters arrived on campus at the University of New England (UNE) in the middle of 1966.

In my second post in this series I spoke of the expansion in the role of Government after the Second World War. To meet the people needs created by this expansion, the Commonwealth Public Service Board wanted to build up the number of graduates in the service. In doing so, it faced certain problems.

While universities had begun to expand, the number of graduates was still relatively small by today's standards, so there was a fair degree of competition for applicants. Further, Sydney and Melbourne graduates were very reluctant to accept jobs in Canberra. This meant that public service graduate recruitment had a special focus on universities outside those cities.

At that stage university students considering the Commonwealth Public Service option had five major choices.

The Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade) had the highest pulling power because Australia's rapidly growing Diplomatic Service offered a variety of overseas positions and considerable prestige. Our diplomats were regarded as a special cadre that carefully selected and then grew its own. Stories about their selection techniques abounded, especially the cocktail parties put on for applicants during which behaviour was carefully tested. I had vaguely thought of applying, but then ruled this out largely because of my views on the Vietnam War.

The Department of Primary Industry and its research arm, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, attracted UNE's agricultural economists and at that stage was almost a UNE club because of the number of UNE people. Alf Maiden, the Department's permanent head, had been one of Dad's first students at the New England University College. I was not interested having ruled economics out at that point.

The same argument applied to Treasury. One of the original departments set up at Federation, Treasury had developed from a core financial control and book keeping function into Canberra's most powerful policy Department, ranking in external prestige only second to the Department of External Affairs. Treasury tried to recruit only good honours economics graduates, so I might not in fact have got in even had I been prepared to consider this option.

Treasury's main Canberra rival, the Department of Trade and Industry, was the fourth possibility. Also a foundation Department on the trade side, DTI had become a very powerful Department under John McEwen as Minister, J G (Jack) Crawford as permanent head.

In retrospect, DTI would have been a logical choice for me if I was going to join the Commonwealth Public Service. I had linkages with the Country Party, the party McEwen headed, while Crawford was a friend of my father. I had aspirations to become a Country Party parliamentarian, so DTI experience might have provided an added base.

The DTI recruiter in fact tried very hard to get me to apply, but none of the potential advantages occurred to me because the Commonwealth Public Service Board recruiter had already interested me on an alternative option, the Administrative Trainee Program.

At that point the Board faced a major graduate recruitment problem. The Departments I have talked about had sufficient power to attract graduates, but the Board wanted to build graduate numbers across the whole Service and was struggling because of negative attitudes, not just about Canberra but about the Service itself. The Administrative Trainee Program had been developed to overcome this.

I saw the Board representative out of curiosity but with no clear intention of applying to join the Public Service. Although I did not know it at the time, I fitted the profile the Board was looking for. I was articulate and reasonably bright, had reasonable academic results, but had also been actively involved in student life including editing the student newspaper and holding office positions in a number of student societies. He therefore set out to sell me on the Program.

He explained that the scheme had been developed to train future Public Service leaders. If accepted, I would go through a year's training combining a mix of formal courses with job rotations. At the end of the year I would be placed with a mutually agreed Department. I was attracted to the concept and ended up applying and being accepted.

Training Program

Upon arrival at Canberra airport I was met by a white commonwealth car, one of those cars used to drive ministers, and driven to Brassey House.

Named after Sir Thomas Brassey, Governor of Victoria from 1885 to 1900 and first Earl of Brassey from 1911 until his death in in 1918, Brassey House was completed in 1927 to coincide with the establishment of the Federal Parliament in Canberra and used as a guest house for the exclusive use of members of parliament and mid-level government officials relocating to Canberra. It had been extended in the early sixties to include conference facilities.

I met most 0f my fellow trainees the following day.

The Board and Department of External Affairs had agreed to combine both the diplomatic and admin training programs for the initial six weeks, so we were quite a big group. Ages ranged from 19 (many people then finished their pass degree at 19) to the early twenties. Both groups were pretty bright and came from all over Australia.

One of the older people in the admin group was George Brouwer, now Victorian Ombudsman. A serious person, George had been born in the Dutch East Indies just prior to the Japanese invasion. We used to tease George simply because he was so serious. Others in the group included Alan Rose and Roger Beale, both of whom were to become department heads.

Life revolved around Brassey House. We worked reasonably hard during the day then socialised at night, drinking rum and coke and playing cards. There were also some social functions where we met previous admin trainees and diplomatic cadets.We also started finding our way round Canberra.

The city was then a period of rapid growth. The total population of the ACT in 1945 was just 13,000. By 1957 this had increased to 39,000, then to 50,000 in 1960 and to 96,000 in 1966. Australia was carefully but rapidly building a national capital that was intended to be a symbol for the nation. With rare exceptions, everyone in Canberra came from somewhere else, so it was very easy to make friends.

I think that there was another advantage in this emigrant mix as well. It made for a diverse public service that knew from first hand experience about attitudes and experiences across Australia. This tempered the natural arrogance that can come from being part of the central government.

I found the training program itself very interesting. I also find it interesting looking back because its structure and content tell us something about the changes that have taken place in Australia.

The public service was then seen as a career service in the Westminster tradition. This meant that it was meant to be a neutral, independent, anonymous, career service: neutral in the sense that we served the elected Government regardless of its party composition; independent in that the Government of the day did not control personnel matters (this was the responsibility of the Public Service Board), while Departmental heads held permanent appointments; anonymous in that while individual public servants might be well known, our advice to and discussions with Government were private to that Government; a career service in that people served for the long term, rising through the ranks.

Something of the flavour can be seen from the comments quoted by Patrick Weller of two senior and very well known public servants to the 1970's Royal Commission into the Commonwealth Public Service. Asked about the objectives of his Department, Sir Lennox Hewitt replied:

I have not previously encountered the suggestion of objectives for a department of state. The Royal Commission will presumably not need anything more from the department than a copy of the administrative arrangements.

Sir Frederick Wheeler's response to the same question was:

The function of the Treasury is to advise and assist the Treasurer in the discharge of his responsibilities. The objectives of the Treasury are, in essence, to carry out this function as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Our training reflected this traditional view of the Public Service. So we learned at a nuts and bolts level about the structure of Government, about the roles of Parliament, Cabinet, the Executive Council and Departments of State. We also learned about personnel management in the Public Service including its history.

We spent a fair bit of time talking about what would now be called ethics and values hearing a variety of speakers including Wilfred Jarvis. A key issue was the role and preservation of individual ethics.

If our role was to help a Government define and carry out its policies, to use Sir Frederick's words, as effectively and efficiently as possible, what were we do if we disagreed? Clearly we should provide advice pointing to issues and problems the Government should consider, but once a decision was made our obligation was to carry it out. But what, then, if the decision was so badly flawed (at least in our view) that we could not (or should not) in all conscience implement it?

We discussed the case of Adolf Eichman as the supreme public servant. He had been given a task by Government, the extermination of the Jews, a task that he certainly carried out as effectively and efficiently as possible. We also talked about the techniques that the North Koreans had used in brainwashing prisoners during the Korean War, at the way in which individual values could be broken down. A key message was the way in which a series of small personal decisions/actions could progressively erode an ethical position or set of beliefs.

I am not sure that we reached a conclusion beyond the need to be aware of ethical issues and the necessity to resign should the conflict be too profound. However, I was to find the discussion very helpful later in handling specific ethical conflicts.

We also discussed Australian society. Professor Jerzy (George) Zubrzycki , for example, spoke to us on the migrant experience, outlining among other things the process of integration that the migrants had gone through over several generations. We also learned a range of technical skills.

Some knowledge of economics was regarded as critical. Professor Burgess Cameron told us that he intended to cover the entire undergraduate economics course in, from memory, fifteen sessions and indeed he tried very hard to do this. In response I had to ring my father, get him to dust off my economics text books and send them down to Canberra by train.

We also did some practical work including a major in-basket exercise running over a number of days in which we each took particular roles - I represented the Department of Shipping and Transport - undertaking research, writing minutes (correspondence within Departments) and memos and letters (correspondence between Departments) and participating in interdepartmental discussions. This was useful, although our trainers had underestimated the quantity of written material likely to be generated, so things started to collapse because there were not enough typing resources.

As part of all this, we also had a number of sessions on writing using, among other things, Gower's Plain Words. There was little of the sensitivity that now exists to the connotations attached to particular words, the term political correctness lay well in the future. Our focus lay in clear, simple, jargon free English.

Looking Forward

I have described the course at some length because I joined the Public Service at the start of a period of massive change and in writing want to give a feel for the old Service.

There are differing views about this change process.

In 2003 Patrick Weller quoted a then minister as saying:

Basically, the last 20 years has been a battle between the elected representatives and the imperial bureaucracy. And the elected representatives won.

That minister saw it as a continuing fight for influence and power between those who were elected and those who serve them.

I have a different view. While change was required, my feeling is that the Public Service today is neither as efficient nor effective as it was. I will look at some elements of this in coming posts.

Copyright and Citation Details

The material is this series is copyright Jim Belshaw. However, it may be copied or quoted with due acknowledgment.

The following should be used for citation purposes if referring to the overall series: Jim Belshaw, Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy, Ndarala Group, 2007 with a link to the introductory post.

If citing this post, Jim Belshaw, "Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 6 - A View from the Past", in Jim Belshaw, Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy, Ndarala Group, 2007 with a link to this post.

Series Posts

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 1 - Introduction, 20 March 2007.

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 2 - Notes on Major Trends, 26 March 2007.

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 3 - Publish or Perish Case Study, 6 April 2007.

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 4 - the New Zealand Model, 9 April 2007.

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 5 - Application and Spread of the New Zealand Model, 10 April 2007.

Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on the Development of Public Policy 6 - A View from the Past, 1 May 2007

No comments: