Experts and your public service

As boring as it sounds, it’s time for a mature conversation about our public service, and the role we expect them to fill.

Our Westminster system virtually demands a public service full of “generalists”; people with broad skill bases, able to apply their intellect to virtually any problem. This favours those who read, write and comprehend well, and necessarily excludes topic-area experts. A stated goal of the APS is to attain “content free management”; a sort of Zen-like state of being able to manage any work problem given to you, regardless of the topic area. The theory is that this allows the department to respond to new problems as they arise, like the Montara Inquiry. In this case an oil well let go in waters off Western Australia and the Minister for Resources and Energy wanted to know why. So, staff in the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism were moved from their current work onto the inquiry and the causes were found and the minister notified. Once the inquiry was over these skilled generalists could then go on to other work they could easily adapt to.

There are good reasons for this model, at least in part, to continue. Federal departments are there to advise ministers, our elected representatives. Departments provide “advice” and ministers make decisions based on that advice. Then, if we don’t like those decisions, we have the option of voting them out in the future. Ideally, public servants shouldn’t make any critical decisions, as they are not held accountable at the ballot box, but allowing ministers to delegate their authority on some matters is probably okay as well. In the end though, the minister is ultimately responsible.

But, there are a few downsides to this model, and a few negative outcomes linking these together.

The first is that in technical areas, like energy, hospitals, drug policy, environment and many others, without the internal capacity to interrogate advice that the department is given, it is very difficult to gauge the quality of the information. The usual process when providing technical advice is that departmental staff procure advice from external consultancies, filled with topic-area experts. This consultancy then provides a report to the department, who summarise this information and pass it on to the minister to make a decision. But the problems of this approach are manifold; what if the non-expert staff in the department ask the wrong question? What if they don’t understand the answer? What if they ask the wrong company? What if the costs of asking the question are exorbitant? What if no consultancy exists to provide the answers?

So in reality, departments employ a smattering of topic-area experts to help shepherd their colleagues through some of these questions. But often because Government likes to receive “independent” advice, these internal experts are not consulted for answers, leaving them in something of an awkward position, both politically and professionally. What does it mean for the quality of independent advice ministers receive, if the experts working in their department cannot be consulted? What happens to morale when experts are sidelined within their own workplace, and forced to deliver programs subject to advice they might disagree with? What happens to the skills of experts when they are sidelined from using them and assigned some sort of umpire’s role?

While in the APS I had a role across departments, and heard some incredible stories. One particular example along these lines stands out: an APS engineer was running a project across two very similar sites, which required a report written and then released, authored by experts in the field. The first report was sourced externally. The paperwork for the procurement took three weeks to clear all the hurdles, consultants were engaged and the report written. But, by the time they were ready to do the second site, money was tight and they could no longer afford to spend another thirty thousand dollars for consultants. Not to worry, we can save money by using our internal engineer to write the report, they decided. This engineer then wrote the second report in about three weeks, the same length of time as the original procurement took.

This illustrates a couple of the contradictory expectations the public has put on the service. The first is that we must be very, very careful spending public money. So careful that spending it is a job on its own, requiring a team of accounts, procurement and legal experts, just to help public servants spend money. The old jokes about red-tape are no more prevalent than in procurement. The other side of it is this idea that advice from outside the department is somehow more balanced, more dependable, than advice given in-house. But this concern disappears when the money runs out.

Pressing in both directions on this conundrum is the issue of pay. The public have expectations about what public servants should be paid and this is not the same as the private sector. An engineer, accountant or lawyer can expect a roughly 50% pay rise upon leaving, yet I suspect that if most members of the public were asked they would support paying technical specialists more within departments. But not public servants. The old response to low pay in the APS was improved conditions; flexibility and sick leave in particular. Again though, public expectation seems to have reined that advantage back significantly. “Flexibility” now means “you can be in the office for any hours between 7am and 7pm, as long as you start between 8:30 and 9:30 and leave after 5”, so forget about making use of your early morning clarity or late night drive. Smoking is outright banned in some jobs, a dismissible offence if caught during work hours. Working from home has been virtually eliminated, crushed by Occupational Health and Safety risk management, and so the days when you have a sniffle and just want to avoid the office become official sick days, and that slight advantage is eroded as well. I assume there were some “good times” in the public service of old; long lunches, smoking at your desk, beers from midday on Fridays, but the court of public opinion and good sense has caught up to those, and your bureaucracy is just another bureaucracy now, with every facet of personality and lifestyle recorded and curtailed. Now to even have sandwiches delivered to a meeting with externals requires department secretary sign-off.

Intuitively then, most people want experts to inform policy and as cheaply as possible. Also, they don’t want to pay public servants very much, and if the public service makes a mistake it is Government’s fault.

How did we arrive at this cognitive dissonance?
I think a large contributor is the conflation by the media of “Government” and “the public service”. There is a wall between the service and the minister that is frequently disregarded. Elected officials need to take responsibility for their actions; they are the only ones who can be held to account, particularly during times of crisis or difficulty. The service must be free to advise the minister how they see fit, with the responsibility for ignoring or taking that advice entirely in the minister’s hands. In our search for someone to blame specifically, we are losing site of the structure we work within.

I don’t think the media are helping either, but it is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Public servants are essentially forbidden from commenting on policy, even when they are a recognised expert in the field. Government forbid them because they want to control the message, and any dissent identified within a department is latched on to as “conflict” and “drama”, both of which sell papers. But does it really need to be this way? Am I asking too much to request we be adult about this, and acknowledge that there might actually be differences of opinion within a department? I actually hope there are different ideas, loads of them, and passionate debate between informed individuals. I want a public service where experts argue about what is the best way to proceed, and advise an elected official, who makes a decision and lives with the consequences. And if public servants express different opinions, the minister can say “yes, there were disagreements, but this is my decision. Judge me.” Let’s include the experts in the public debate, with conscious acknowledgement that these differing opinions are healthy, and not a sign of division, cracks or trouble within a department.

Then we can start talking about employing experts again. And paying them appropriately.

Image by Wolfgang Lonien via Creative Commons Licence

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