23 June 2022

APS appointment means public service reform is on the way

| Ian Bushnell
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Dr Gordon de Brouwer

Dr Gordon de Brouwer: his appointment is a positive sign for the public service. Photo: ANU.

The appointment of a Secretary for Public Sector Reform shows the Albanese Government is serious about reforming the public service, according to ANU academic and former Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger.

Professor Podger, from the Crawford School of Public Policy, said the move to appoint former senior public servant Dr Gordon de Brouwer was a positive sign of the new government’s intent to follow through on its election commitments.

He said including Dr de Brouwer and new Prime Minister and Cabinet boss Glyn Davis, who both served on the Thodey review panel, in the mix of department Secretaries also showed its hand.

“But it’s not clear what the mechanics will be for how de Brouwer will do his job – where does he get his support from, how does he work closely with the Public Service Commissioner? That’s yet to be clarified,” he said.

“I suspect support will come from both the Public Service Commission and the Prime Minister’s department.”

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Professor Podger said change would not come overnight, and it would take six to 12 months to develop a packaged reform agenda.

“I suspect what de Brouwer is there to help them do is build up a reform agenda,” he said.

“Once they start acting on that, then you’ve got the long-term job of how does that lead to any enhancement of the capability of the service.”

Professor Podger sees several phases of reform – first moving on specific commitments such as removing the staff ceiling and reducing expenditure on consultants and contractors.

Then the more difficult work of determining changes to the Public Service Act, the future role of the Public Service Commissioner, and how senior appointments, not only in the public service but also statutory authorities, ought to be made.

He said establishing more uniform pay and conditions would take three to four years.

“Each agency has their own, they’re not related to the market, and there are all sorts of problems associated with that, which have been highlighted by a number of parliamentary committees over the years,” Professor Podger said.

“They haven’t said exactly what they will do, but they clearly have that in mind as an issue to be examined.”

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Professor Podger said public service funding needed to be looked at more carefully, including the future of the efficiency dividend.

The role of ministerial advisers, their accountability and their relationship to the public service also needed attention.

“One of the problems has been for some years ministers and their advisers have seen the public service as something to be controlled and have not exploited the talent and capability in it to help them deliver the policies they want,” Professor Podger said.

He believed the government wanted to strengthen the role of the Public Service Commissioner, currently occupied by Peter Woolcott, to deliver actual long-term reforms, especially as Dr de Brouwer’s appointment is only for two years.

“What you will see is he will help with getting the agenda for reform, including changes to the Public Service Act, and then at the end of two years, you will see that reverting back to what is the enhanced role of the Commissioner,” Professor Podger said.

He said public servants would be feeling pretty good about the appointment and the new government.

“They see that they’re getting greater respect than they have and there is clear intention by the government to enhance their role,” Professor Podger said.

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Dr de Brouwer will report to Senator Gallagher and work closely with Mr Woolcott and the Secretaries Board.

Senator Gallagher said in a statement that Dr de Brouwer would lead and implement a wide range of public sector reforms to support the government’s commitment to building a stronger public service that delivered better outcomes for the community, acted as a model employer and contributed to building a fairer and more inclusive Australia.

“The Australian Public Service (APS) plays a crucial role in serving the Australian community and helping to shape the future of our nation, and the appointment of Dr de Brouwer to lead this important work demonstrates the Albanese Government’s commitment to ensuring that the APS is fit for purpose going forward,” she said.

Dr de Brouwer brings 35 years of experience in public policy to the role, including as Secretary of the Environment and Energy, and senior roles in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, ANU and the Reserve Bank of Australia.

He was also a panel member of the Independent Review of the APS (Thodey Review) led by David Thodey in 2019.

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Let’s hope “reform” means better and timely delivery of key services. Use of Consultancies grew as they could be held accountable for delivery and dispensed with if they didn’t perform. Many senior PS Managers have allegedly given up trying to get some under performing employees to deliver, was taking up all their time and not supported, all too hard. Let’s not make that worse.

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