From The Australian:
(Rudd) has asked Terry Moran, secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to put together an advisory panel which will develop a discussion paper seeking ideas for reform by the end of this month.
Unfortunately the syntax here is confusing but I guess that it means that the advisory panel will be established by the end of the month rather than the ‘ideas’.
Sounds well-meaning and worthwhile doesn’t it?
Don’t be fooled.
For a start, Rudd’s fondness for elongated processes are part of the problem (remember the 20/20 summit and the new PM crouched on the floor looking for ideas).
Rudd is also reported as saying yesterday that he wants bold ideas and courage:
“Public servants should not shy away from big ideas or be afraid to be bold,” Mr Rudd, a former public servant and diplomat, said.
“As I have said before, we cannot afford a culture where the public service only tells the government what it wants to hear.”
Unfortunately, the last few decades of reform (a word that has been leached of meaning) have pushed the public service in precisely the opposite direction.
All the emphasis on ‘serving the Minister’, ‘providing mature advice’ and ‘working as a team’ (all phrases that I regularly heard when my shortcomings were being discussed and I was being ‘counselled’) has simply underscored the old LBJ maxim ‘go along to get ahead’ which is at the very heart of the ethos of the senior ranks of the Canberra bureaucracy.
And this kind of culture only re-inforces the paradoxical effects of tenure. When people build their careers around a specific set of largely non-transferable skills promotion through the ranks means they have ever more to lose and they consequently become more timid as they climb the ladder. Tenure undermines boldness and courage. The very opposite of its much touted justification.
Most senior public servants have virtually no real career experience outside the public service, and often their experience within the public service is also sharply constrained to a few Departments (with preference given to people with central agency experience e.g. treasury and prime minister and cabinet). Unsurprisingly, the range of viewpoints on basic questions (not policy details) is very narrow at the top. Which I guess is what prompts Rudd’s call for fresh thinking.
Bold ideas and courage come from a breadth of experience and confidence, and that takes careers that span senior roles in a number of fields. The senior public service is practically devoid of people with real experience in business, media, academia, the NGO sector, and so on. So without this internal diversity and cross-fertilisation, where will the ideas come from? Outside consultants? Summits? And like their parliamentary masters, senior public servants are still overwhelmingly white males. A bit more noticeable in the age of Obama.
So Rudd’s panels, discussion papers and what all won’t make a bit of difference unless he finds a way of breaking open the cloistered world inhabited by his loyal but unimaginative and fearful advisers. Stale minds and dull cultures don’t just suddenly become bold and creative.