Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

The Australian Public Service

Further reading suggestions

  • Fenna, A. 2004. Australian Public Policy. 2nd edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Education) Ch 8 is an overarching account of government structures and policy making which sets the APS in a wider context.
  • Stewart, J. 2009. ‘Managing and restructuring the public sector’ in D. Woodward, A. Parkin, and J. Summers (eds) Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson.)
  • Singleton, G., Aitkin D, Jinks B. and Warhurst J. 2009. Australian Political Institutions. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson). Chapter 7. ‘The Public Service’
  • Miragliotta, N. And Errington, W. 2009. The Australian Political System in Action. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press). Chapter 6. ‘The Public Service: Making and Implementing Policy’ takes up the question of the politicisation of the APS.
  • Davis, G. and R. Rhodes 2000. ‘From Hierarchy to Contracts and Back Again: Reforming the Australian Public Service’ in J. Keating, J. Wanna and P. Weller (eds) Institutions on the Edge? (St Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin).

A further note on New Public Management 
‘Traditionally there was a gulf between the work practices of public servants and those working in business’. The ‘old’ public service was a rule-bound bureaucracy: the duties of each and every office were carefully defined and the tasks which public servants were expected to perform were carefully circumscribed by rules that they were obliged to systematically and impartially apply. If the private sector offered ‘flexibility, rewards, risks and personal responsibility for one’s own performance’ then the unreformed APS was ‘dominated by formal hierarchies enmeshed in routine and due process’ (Bishop and Wanna 2004, 112). It is important to grasp this difference because those reforms to the APS made from the mid-1980s collectively dubbed New Public Management were intended to fundamentally change the organisation and culture of the public service and to improve its efficiency and accountability. 

New Public Management refers to a body of reforms broadly intended to decentralize the management of public sector agencies and ‘let the managers manage’ by devolving budgets, financial control and the power to hire and fire. A further element included an increased emphasis on programs and the demonstration of performance by measured out put. New Public Management also involved an increased reliance on market mechanisms and the outsourcing (by competitive tender) of the provision of public services which obliged public sector agencies to compete with private providers for government funding. With these changes came a newfound emphasis on cost recovery, efficiency and competitiveness. The rigid, tiered structure of the old public service was dissolved. Positions in the public service were opened to external competition with the aim of drawing private sector managers and others into the Australian Public Service. To drive home the cultural change required, those citizens with whom public service agencies dealt were recast as customers and clients and often charged fees or co-payments as the end-users of services provided. The key point is that the introduction of New Public Management involved a major change not only in the organisation of the public sector, but in the underlying public service culture. 

According to Verspaandonk (2003), in contrast to the ‘old’, the reformed and more entrepreneurial ‘new’ APS is ‘characterised by:

A Bulleted List

  • flexibility regarding processes, accountability for outputs and outcomes, and a strong emphasis on efficiency
  • similarity with the private sector in organisation and service delivery, and increasing use of the private sector to deliver services
  • a more diverse workforce, particularly at senior levels
  • increasing use of contract employment and greater scope for public servants to be dismissed
  • responsibility for policy advice shared with political advisers and consultants
  • employment opportunities at all levels for people not currently employed by the public service
  • enhanced political control of the bureaucracy
  • a variety of avenues for citizens to obtain information and/or redress
  • devolution of personnel practices and conditions, and
  • decentralisation of budget responsibilities.’
In broad terms, the neo-liberal doctrine which underpinned the introduction of New Public Management and the reform of the Australian Public Service by successive Labor and Coalition governments placed an emphasis on the desirability of ‘small government’, and upon paring back the public sector to its ‘core functions’. A key tenet of neo-liberalism is that governments should not undertake tasks more efficiently performed via market mechanisms. New Public Administration required a Public Service accustomed to delivering services and providing public infrastructure to redefine its role—as tendering out and overseeing the delivery of services by private providers. 

Inevitably the adoption of this view of the role of the public sector also saw an associated reduction or ‘downsizing’ of the Public Service; the privatisation of public sector agencies (such as the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories) and the sale of government assets (such as the Williamstown dockyards, the AUSSAT satellite and various embassy and government office buildings). It also obliged Departments to outsource not only routine matters such as personal management and the provision and maintenance of computer systems, but also key functions. Thus ‘line’ departments contracted out ‘the delivery of services to clients’ whilst ‘central agencies’ (such as Treasury and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) even outsourced the provision of ‘policy advice to private think tanks, economic consultancy firms, account firms and policy consultants’ (Bishop and Wanna 2004, 118). 

One hallmark of the managerial reform of the Public Service has been a change in the way public servants are employed. In the ‘old’ APS, public servants possessed tenure. However public service reform has been matched by an increasing use of contract employment and with it, a greater scope for public servants to be dismissed for failing to meet performance goals (Verspaandonk 2003). At the senior levels fewer public servants ‘see their employment as a life-long vocation’ and most are now ‘employed on short-term contracts …. and judged by how well they manage, and terminated if found unsatisfactory’ (Bishop and Wanna 2004, 114). Department secretaries (or heads) are themselves appointed on short term contracts which typically pay additional bonuses for achieving specified performance goals. These employment practices were introduced to make the public service more accountable and responsive. However since ministers are now directly involved in the appointment of senior public servants, it may well be that their effect has been to contribute to the politicisation of the public service. 

Sources: Bishop, P. and J. Wanna 2004.‘Public Sector Reform’ in in E. Van Acker and G. Curran (eds) Governing Business and Globalisation. 2nd edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson). Verspaandonk, R. [revised by Ian Holland] 2003. ‘Changes in the Australian Public Service 1975-2003’ Chronology no. 1 2002-03 Politics and Public Administration Group, Parliamentary Library Canberra (see http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/chron/2002-03/03chr01.htm)

Discussion point 
The advent of New Public Management has seen the abandonment of traditional Westminster tenure for public servants. But does this necessarily mean that the APS been ‘struck dumb’ and ‘politically neutered’?