Power Is Not Meant For Bureaucratic Hands

Terry Moran wants senior public servants to be liberated to “talk sensibly” in public about “long-term and self-evident truths” without being seen as betraying their political masters.

That is, Moran wants to revive the public service mandarin, updated for the media-centric demands of the 21st century.

Moran was recently the head of the Prime Minister’s Department. You can read his argument in the Australian Journal of Public Administration here.

It’s an important piece. It reveals, subtly but distinctly, what Australia’s bureaucracy wants, and what it fears.

Our ideas of the public service waver uncomfortably between two largely incompatible doctrines.

The first is the strict Westminster doctrine of ministerial responsibility. According to this doctrine, the bureaucracy is accountable to the minister – it acts solely according to the wishes of its elected master. It is non-partisan and neutral. It provides advice, of course, but does so privately. It is nothing more than “an extension of the minister’s capacity”.

The second doctrine is more nebulous and romantic: that of an autonomous, technocratic and permanent bureaucracy, which has its own mandate to advocate and act in the best wishes of the nation. We could call this doctrine Hegelian – drawn from the 19th century philosopher Georg Hegel, who believed the bureaucracy had a moral mission to pursue what was in society’s general interest.

Taken far enough, the Hegelian bureaucracy is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Senior bureaucrats already can, and do, speak in public about their areas of responsibility. Here are recent speeches given by public servants at the Department of Climate Change, and those given by the Department of Health and Ageing.

This is a good thing. Information provision is a vital part of the bureaucracy’s job. When politicians come up with grand schemes it is necessary for bureaucrats to translate those schemes into reality and to clarify for a confused public what on earth they actually mean.

But on top of this, Moran would like public servants to be free to talk about “long-term strategy”. He is proud that many of the reforms of the 1980s were “conceived and championed by the public service”, and hopes the public service can lead again – but this time as much through high-profile speeches on “self-evident truths” as through internal advocacy.

Don’t let the fact that the liberalisations of the 1980s were an unambiguous success obscure how undemocratic this idea is. The bureaucracy has neither the authority nor the legitimacy to publicly call for what it thinks a government should do.

Moran also wants ministerial advisors – or, more crudely, political advisors – to be subject to the same rigid accountability structures as the public service. This would include being given bureaucratically defined roles and having to answer to parliamentary committees.

The biggest threat to the influence of the public service has been the rise of political advisors. These advisors are a competing source of counsel. Public servants no longer have the unencumbered access to the ministers they once had.

It’s common to read complaints (particularly from the Rudd era) about how arrogant and young advisors swan around Canberra apparently unchecked by any person or sense of propriety. You can understand why advisors get the public service so riled up.

But these advisors exist for a reason. Newly appointed ministers are easily brow-beaten by experienced public servants. The relationships depicted in Yes, Minister are not fictional. If you want to read how some agencies and departments used to treat their minister as just a rubber stamp, read Neil Brown’s great and amusing memoir On the other hand.

Faced with a self-interested, confident, and experienced bureaucracy, it helps to have an advisor or two who is unambiguously on the minister’s side.

So whenever you hear public servants complain about political advisors, think: power-play.

(And, contrary to Moran’s claim, the original spark for the 1980s reforms didn’t come from the public service, but from advisors: for instance, John Rose in Malcolm Fraser’s office and John Hewson in Treasurer John Howard’s office.)

I quoted a basic definition of the Westminster concept of the public service above. One of Australia’s greatest mandarins, Sir Henry Bland put the case more forcefully:

[T]he Minister is the department. Without a Minister there cannot be a department … The Permanent Head is the Minister’s adviser and the manager of the department’s staff … And remember, Parliaments do not provide funds for Permanent Heads.

It is ministers who have power and authority in our democratic system. Ministers are the ones elected. Ministers are the ones who are ultimately accountable.

Senior bureaucrats might like recognition and intellectual prominence – to be seen by the public as visionaries and “thought-leaders”. But that, simply, is not what they are there for.