Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Opinion

Canberra’s Leading
Relationship Lawyers

The anonymous bureaucrat

By John Hargreaves - 9 February 2015 5

office-worker-faceless-stock

When I was young and impressionable (as opposed to now when I am old and impressionable), I studied organisational theory. You know, the stuff Frederick Taylor wrote on Scientific Management, Max Weber’s theories on bureaucracy and March and Simon’s thoughts on the dysfunction of bureaucracy.

I was particularly drawn to Weber’s theories and his notion of the anonymity of office for bureaucracy.

As a junior public servant I could relate to this theory. In those days, other than departmental secretaries, the names of public servants (the ultimate bureaucrats) were not made known to the general public. The same applied to other giant bureaucracies such as banks and large corporations, in which only the names of the chief executives were public.

An officer could give frank and fearless advice or make a decision without a thought of being held publicly accountable and thereby ensuring an unbiased and brave approach to decision making. It was not flawless, however, as it enabled incompetent managers to survive.

It also meant that executive responsibility was real. Now it is only applied for political expediency or point scoring.

Over the years this anonymity has been eroded to the degree where now it is nigh on obsolete.

How often do we see officers’ names in advertisements for contracts, recruitment, public notices and in articles critical of an aspect of the governance of the day?

How often do we see the names of officers who have given advice or taken decisions in good faith, exposed in the media through the release of cabinet papers and freedom of information releases?

All too often, in my view! When I tried to impose this anonymity as a protection for officers appearing with or before me at Legislative Assembly committee hearings, (when being on both sides of the table), I was told that I was out of line and that the officers needed to justify themselves. My position of accepting the ultimate executive responsibility for decisions was only accepted by my opponents when it suited them.

At present, if a public servant makes a decision or gives advice, they have no guarantee that it won’t rear its head later on, or that they will avoid criticism for that action. Is this fair? Is this the way to ensure good decision making?

Should the public have the right to know who has contributed to a decision at every stage – from conception, to advice and conclusion?

Do we demand this right of the banks, mining companies, retail giants, financial advisory institutions? Do private sector companies have this right, when even stockholders of companies do not have that right?

Just because public services are provided through taxation, the demand for over the top transparency goes too far. Requiring the bases for decisions is fine by me but not the names of the people who propounded those bases.

How about some consistency between the public and private sectors?

What’s Your opinion?


Post a comment
Please login to post your comments, or connect with
5 Responses to
The anonymous bureaucrat
rommeldog56 5:06 pm 11 Feb 15

switch said :

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

Unfortunately sufficiently high levels of incompetence are indistinguishable from malice.

I think this sort of describes the current Federal and ACT Gov’ts well :

“Never confuse rank stupidity for rat cunning.”

switch 8:52 am 11 Feb 15

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

Unfortunately sufficiently high levels of incompetence are indistinguishable from malice.

rommeldog56 4:01 am 11 Feb 15

rommeldog56 said :

As I recall, it was Max Weber who described bureaucracy as a “giant power weilded by pygmies” (exact quote I think).

Public servants should be able to be held accountable to taxpayers/ratepayers for their decisions and advice to Government in particular. There should be no secrecy.

Take for example any advice given to the ACT Gov’t to withhold the recent consultants report on options to raise revenue from the Light Rail Corridore, or the advice/decision to refuse to release the costings supporting the ACT Gov’ts claim that the tripling of Annual Rates Vs reduction in Stamp Duty is “revenue neutral”, or the (legal ?) advice to the ACT Gov’t that the introduction of same sex marriage bills and subsequent waste of $800K of ACT Ratepayers money, would/could not be overturned by the Feds, etc.

As a resident, ratepayer and voter in the ACT – I certainly want that visability and through that, accountability of public servants,advisers/consultants, Minister and other decision makers.

I’ll just crawl back into the sewer from where I was apparently born now………

Sorry, it was Honore Balzac who in the mid 1800s described bureaucracy as “a giant mechanism operated by pygmies”.

In the early 1900s Max Weber also said “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of ‘secret sessions’; in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism. Under normal conditions, the power position of a fully developed bureaucracy is always over-towering.”

rommeldog56 11:46 pm 10 Feb 15

As I recall, it was Max Weber who described bureaucracy as a “giant power weilded by pygmies” (exact quote I think).

Public servants should be able to be held accountable to taxpayers/ratepayers for their decisions and advice to Government in particular. There should be no secrecy.

Take for example any advice given to the ACT Gov’t to withhold the recent consultants report on options to raise revenue from the Light Rail Corridore, or the advice/decision to refuse to release the costings supporting the ACT Gov’ts claim that the tripling of Annual Rates Vs reduction in Stamp Duty is “revenue neutral”, or the (legal ?) advice to the ACT Gov’t that the introduction of same sex marriage bills and subsequent waste of $800K of ACT Ratepayers money, would/could not be overturned by the Feds, etc.

As a resident, ratepayer and voter in the ACT – I certainly want that visability and through that, accountability of public servants,advisers/consultants, Minister and other decision makers.

I’ll just crawl back into the sewer from where I was apparently born now………

Leon 8:39 am 10 Feb 15

Anonymity also avoids accountability.

Perhaps it was no accident that the Light Rail Business Case did not identify any of the public servants OR consultants who prepared it.

Related Articles

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Top
Copyright © 2017 Riot ACT Holdings Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.
www.the-riotact.com | www.b2bmagazine.com.au | www.thisiscanberra.com

Search across the site