John Howard: The Australian Public Service

This is a transcript of the speech given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, to the Centenary Conference of the Institute of Public Administration.

Prime Minister John HowardI am pleased to be here today to present the ‘Centenary of the APS Oration’.

I share with you the hope that today’s conference and the other events being held this week will publicise the significant role the Australian Public Service has played in building the strong and vibrant nation that both public servants and politicians have the honour to serve.

It has been a remarkable century of achievement, well documented during the Federation celebrations of recent months. But today is an occasion to recognise that behind all the successes, in peace and in war, have been generations of dedicated Australian men and women working for the common good as public servants.

Whilst we must always be careful not to mythicise the past and those who lived within it, clearly the efforts and the vision of many of your predecessors made a profound and lasting difference to the character of our society.

The great national issues of the past century – the turning of the dream of Federation into reality, post war reconstruction and repatriation, the peaceful settlement of millions of migrants, the vast nation building projects like the Snowy and our rail and road networks to name just a few– were made possible through the enthusiasm and the commitment of those within the APS.

It remains the constant challenge of today’s public servants to match in vigour, imagination and talent those they follow.

Before addressing some of the future issues I believe the Service will face in contributing to good governance and the task of nation building, it’s appropriate that first, on behalf of the wider Australian community, I thank you and all of your colleagues, past and present, for your outstanding contribution to Australia’s prosperity and unique social cohesion.

Whatever the future may bring, there are aspects of our law and legislative processes that must remain immutable. Significant change in these areas would mean erosion of the very fundamentals of Australian democratic process.

An accountable, non partisan and professional public service providing to a democratically elected government sound and fearless advice is one such element and, as I’ve said many times before, preserving its value is a priority for my government.

The quality of any government is dependent, in large part, upon the quality of advice it receives. To believe otherwise – that a responsible and successful government can be sustained in the long term without the support of a dynamic and dedicated bureaucracy – defies logic and history.

So whatever the extent and direction of change in the future, Australia must be assured that its governments, of whatever political persuasion, will be guided by considered, honest advice based on rigorous analysis, sound knowledge of administrative practice and sensible precedent.

Australia is fortunate to have a modern, flexible federal public service, increasingly animated by a culture of quality service delivery and whose administrative processes measure up to the best in the nation and the world.

That the Service is world class is amply demonstrated by the numerous requests from other countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, for assistance in studying or adopting Australian models of public service practice and reform. In areas as diverse as budget management, developing codes of conduct, remuneration policy and illicit drug strategy amongst others, Australia is looked upon by many as a source of best practice in public administration.

That is not to say however that occasionally, some structural change to the Service isn’t needed to meet the contemporary needs of the society it serves. Excellence is never static and regular review and renewal will always be required.

The latest Public Service Act legislated in 1999 fulfilled this purpose. The Act builds on the 1902 and 1922 Acts initiated by the Coalition parties’ political forebears and is tangible evidence of our commitment to measured and responsible public sector reform when necessary.

APS TO BE REFLECTIVE OF CHANGING SOCIETY

Most change affecting the APS however is not legislative but arises from the ongoing necessity for the Service to reflect the times and the environment in which it operates, the values and priorities of Australians, and the specific needs of government.

Whilst maintaining its intrinsic integrity, a healthy public service cannot be discrete from its environment. Indeed, its very value and relevance in the future will depend largely upon a capacity to keep abreast of social, technological, economic and, increasingly, ethical developments moving at an ever increasing pace both within Australia and internationally.

The APS cannot stand alone, immune from the fundamental changes occurring around it. I am heartened that few signs exist that it wishes to do so.

In many ways, not least in the nature and composition of its workforce, the Public Service accurately reflects the wider community. For example, the APS of 50 years ago was essentially a male domain. Over the past 10 years, the gap between men and women in the Service has narrowed steadily with the proportion of women employed now nearing 50 per cent. Women now make up half of trainees including those in the graduate intakes.

Although clearly there is a way to go, it is particularly encouraging to see the proportion of women in senior APS management positions increasing. In the 25 years since 1976 when females held only one per cent of such positions, the proportion has grown to over 25 per cent.

The APS now has an industrial relations regime that largely mirrors that of the private sector and increasingly, more emphasis is being given to ‘family friendly’ practices – again a reflection of broader community attitudes.

The introduction of contracts and workplace agreements was a significant and fundamental departure from the past. Although criticised by many, their use does reflect the greater flexibility in employment arrangements that prevail throughout the entire community, and the vastly changed working environment from that which obtained when the service was established.

Such contracts and agreements ensure the quality of performance and productivity level expected by the community from individuals entrusted with great responsibility and rewarded accordingly without compromising the provision of frank and fearless advice.

Sensibly, the debate over out-sourcing is now largely a matter about the quality of services not their delivery. A collateral benefit of such activity, in addition to the financial and efficiency gains sought, is access by the Service to contemporary business practice and a better understanding by both sectors of the imperatives which drive the other.

In addition, over the last decade or two, there has been a blurring of the divide between the public and private sectors as government business enterprises have become more competitive, more interactive with the dynamics of the marketplace and some have been privatised.

This enthusiasm and capacity for change within the Public Service augurs well for Australia. The effects of open trade, of enhanced communication and information flow, of highly mobile capital and labour markets, of greater competitive pressure will continue to be felt at every level of Australian society and within every part of its economy.

Through a combination of good economic management and bold reforms, Australia is well positioned to benefit from globalisation.

We’ve opened many of our markets to trade, reformed the taxation system and financial sector, sharply reduced the national debt and increased flexibility and productivity in the labour market.

Yet, the continued reform of the Australian economy will be greatly assisted by the responsiveness and ongoing capacity of the APS to support these changes.

By less focus on process and more on outcome, by a stronger client service ethos, by the acceptance of many of the standards and challenges placed on Australian business itself, the Public Service is making great strides towards doing so.

A major challenge for each of you, and those you collectively represent, is to maintain this pace of reform whilst preserving, on behalf of the Australian community, prudent levels of risk management.

WHOLE OF GOVT APPROACH

Another challenge is the capacity of departments to successfully interact with each other in pursuit of whole of government goals and more broadly, for the entire Service to work in partnership with other bureaucracies, with business and with community groups as resources and responsibility are devolved closer to where problems or opportunities exist.

We live in an increasingly complex and interdependent environment and there is no doubt that, in recent years, issues have more consistently reached across traditional portfolio boundaries. This trend will continue.

Whole of government approaches, collectively owned by several Ministers, will increasingly become a common response. The Government’s January Innovation statement, an initiative championed collectively by Ministers Kemp, Alston and Minchin, and the recent Welfare Reform package, jointly managed by Ministers Abbott and Vanstone are two cases in point.

Senior Public Servants and their staff will need to find ways to minimise any limitations associated with what could be described as the ‘Silo effect’. A methodology for rapid and effective integration of work units from traditionally unrelated departments will need to be further refined to achieve broader government objectives.

Similarly, complex issues such as regional development, environmental repair and protection, scientific and industrial research, overcoming entrenched social problems among others, will only be addressed through collective action by governments at all three levels, by business, community groups and impassioned individuals. All of us have responsibility to ensure that meritorious claims for assistance don’t go unanswered for the lack of coordinated effort.

The public service has a significant role to play in this regard, both in ideas and implementation.

A vital issue that comes to mind in this respect is dryland salinity. By the late 1990s about 2.5 million hectares of land in Australia was affected, with projections of up to a sixfold increase within 30 to 100 years. The economic and social impact is already immense – it’s a problem that must be fixed.

The Federal Government has taken national leadership in this matter but it will take effective political and bureaucratic co-operation between the Commonwealth and the States.

Salinity is indeed a good example of both the successful establishment of a taskforce drawn from various parts of the Government to tackle a complex whole of government issue and the development of a future plan of action incorporating participation by a wide range of government, business and local community organisations.

CONTESTIBILITY OF ADVICE

Another future challenge facing the APS is, in my view, one that strikes at the very heart of the Service’s traditional role – the contestability of advice to government.

There can be no doubt that a competitive environment has emerged for the provision of policy advice to government. In addition to individual government departments and agencies, Ministers obtain advice from within their own offices, government initiated reviews and inquiries and, in increasingly sophisticated ways, external sources such as interest groups, industry bodies and lobbyists. The revolution in communications represented by email has also led to a vast increase in direct contact by constituents.

This is a positive and healthy development. Elected representatives should canvass views and take advice from as wide a range of legitimate community sources as possible.

Ministers are also entitled to depend on their personal staff to a considerable degree.

I noted in the Sir Robert Garran Oration in 1997 that Ministers are taking greater control of policy planning, detail and implementation and that this is in part a response to a more demanding electorate that expects, quite properly, to see members of the government responding to community needs and answering for their decisions in a public and continuous way.

On this basis, it is appropriate that they have staff around them with whom they can properly discuss both policy and political issues and from whom they can receive advice that would be inappropriate for a departmental public servant, acting in a non partisan way, to give.

Ministers can and do, of course, employ public servants in their private offices. It’s appropriate that ministerial offices draw from the full range of skills – political and public administrative – that’s available. And it’s tribute to the quality of training and range of experience offered within the APS that some of the finest Ministerial staff that I have known had previous careers within the Service. My own Chief of Staff, Mr Arthur Sinodinos and those of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer are among many others working with senior Ministers who would fall within these category.

In many ways, it’s the ideal – someone who understands the detailed workings of government but is fully attuned and sympathetic to the Government’s political and policy objectives.

In such an environment, today’s Public Service needs to be flexible in dealing with new concepts. It needs to be highly selective and skilful at identifying relevant data. Recognising the Government’s priorities, it needs to be responsive to new information and be able to turn that information into quality advice. Public servants have always known their advice must be rigorous, relevant and creative – if it is to be useful to government. That has always been the case but as conditions become more complex, the challenge to maintain the quality of your advice will grow.

Unlike many other players, the APS is unique in being able to provide genuinely impartial advice, devoid of vested interest, framed for the longer term and backed by corporate wisdom and experience now dating back 100 years.

This growing contestability of advice should in no way diminish the traditional role of the Public Service to contribute in the area of policy development. Good policy requires a strong working relationship between the Public Service and the government of the day, and we should resist any tendency to undermine this balance and to confine the Service to mere implementation.

I, like my predecessors, regard the capacity for continuing, impartial, quality advice as one of the essential values of the service. And it is a tradition the great majority of public servants are continuing at this very moment.

BALANCE / SIZE

Finally, I’d like to touch on what I regard as one of the great unsung success stories of our last one hundred years.

That has been Australia’s success in balancing public and private resourcing, particularly in what I would broadly describe as human services.

That balance, achieved by successive Australian governments in key areas such as health and education, has contributed much to our social stability. Those wishing choice can have it and yet all Australians, particularly those in need, are offered access to quality services. This isn’t, and has never been, a question of ideology but of the best and fairest way to deliver services to the Australian people.

In this and in all aspects of the national life, the Government has a limited but strategic role to play.

In the crucial area of health care services for instance, the Commonwealth and State Governments through Medicare, provide funds for public hospitals, local GP services and prescribed medicines and importantly, ensures universal access to quality health services. Other services such as private hospitals and dentistry are provided through the private health system.

In education, another area in which the APS has a vital role, the Commonwealth assists the states to fund a quality public system. Federal funds are also the predominant source of support for non-government schools to the value of around 50 per cent of the cost of educating a child in the government system. The vast bulk of the additional cost is met by parents willing to make sacrifices in order to gain choice in respect to their children’s education.

The case for nurturing a partnership between the public and private sectors of education is overwhelming and the Public Service will continue to be a key part in the management of that relationship.

In short, Australia, through trial, error and experimentation over many decades has achieved a better balance than most other nations in creating two complementary and high quality systems – one provided by government, the other by the private sector.

In addition, it is always a worthy pursuit to aim for a government that is modest in size. However, the appropriate size of the Public Service will always be relative not absolute.

The generic evidence would appear to support the proposition that Australia, more than most other nations, has achieved a balance between affordability and service provision. In 1999, general government outlays in Australia as a percentage of GDP were just under 32 per cent. This is higher than that of the United States where individuals in need are sometimes left without the assistance they should have. Yet, it is much lower than that needed to support the bloated bureaucracies found in many European countries where government outlays can exceed the equivalent of more than half their GDP.

CONCLUSION

Ladies and Gentlemen, in celebrating its Centenary of Federation, Australia has much to be proud of. In celebrating a century of public service, you and your colleagues also have a great deal to be proud of.

You can be proud that much of the impetus for change and continuous improvement has come from within the public service itself. Quality people want to work in an atmosphere of excitement, innovation and best practice. They want to know their achievements can make a real difference to people’s lives. That is true of the modern APS.

The APS over the past century has been a prized national asset servicing the national interest, adding value to the directions set by the government of the day. As I’ve said before, the responsibility of any government must be to pass on to its successors a public service which is better able to meet the challenges of its time than the one it inherited. My government clearly continues to accept that responsibility.

You have responsibility to meet the great challenges ahead and adapt, just as this nation must adapt, to thrive in the faster, more competitive world of the 21st century. Some of those challenges I’ve mentioned today – the contestability of your advice – the maintenance of its quality, your capacity to work effectively both within the Service and with other sectors and other jurisdictions, your ability – in structure, work practice and acceptance of accountability- to more fully reflect the society that you serve.

In looking ahead to the APS’s next century of service, I have no doubt that you, and those who follow in your footsteps, will contribute immeasurably to the dynamic and prosperous future of this nation and its people.

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