There is much in this report that is useful in summarising the state of the Australian Public Service, both its strengths and weaknesses. It also reflects recent disquiet about secrecy, abuse of process, and public mistrust.

Most recommendations are rather bland, at least in the identified areas relevant to accountability. Harder-edged proposals have mostly been set aside by the Government.

Stuart Hamilton, ART Director

The Independent Review of the APS ‘Our Public Service, Our Future’ (the Thodey Review) and the Government Response ‘Delivering for Australians’
This commentary focusses just on the recommendations of the Thodey Review relating to accountability/ transparency/integrity rather than attempting to consider the Review as a whole.

The Review was commissioned by Prime Minister Turnbull in May 2018 and delivered to Prime Minister Morrison in September 2019. The Prime Minister released the Report and gave a government response in the context of a wider statement on the public service in December 2019.

The Review panel comprised 6 members of whom 4 have business backgrounds including the chair David Thodey (former CEO of Telstra). The remaining two, Glyn Davis and Gordon de Brouwer, have a public sector backgrounds. The reference group comprised 4 former politicians (3 Australian and one NZ) and 5 current or former public servants of whom 1 (David Morgan, former Westpac CEO) is Australian.

The Review positions itself as the most far-reaching in 40 years, since the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (the Coombs Report) in 1975, and in a sense that is probably right, in that its terms of reference are broader than most in the intervening years (full disclosure – I was on the staff of the Royal Commission, and helped ‘Nugget’ Coombs finalise the report as a junior research officer).

Of the Review’s 40 recommendations, many of which are cast in very broad terms, 8 could be said to be related to improving accountability, and some of those only indirectly. The remainder concern leadership, culture, partnership with stakeholders, use of technology, improving efficiency, mobility, ‘seamless’ government, staff recruitment and development, tenure, and capacity for ‘transformation’ (probably the favourite word of the review).

The accountability-related recommendations, with the government response and a brief comment, are as follows:
2b Promote continuous improvement through…….. better performance reporting
The relevant specific proposal is to improve performance reporting by agencies as recommended in a 2018 review of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, which called for improved standards of public reporting.
The Government agreed ‘in principle’.
Comment: worthy but merely kicked along the road.
5 Promote a shared understanding of the APS and its role alongside the Executive and Parliament

Specifically, to amend the Public Service Act 1999 to reflect ‘key principles of the APS – apolitical, stewardship, openness, integrity and adherence to merit’

The Government did not agree to amend the Public Service Act, as it ‘has made it clear that it endorses the Westminster principles that underpin the APS…and it is not necessary to refine and legislate these principles…’

Comment: the point of the recommendation was to place the principles beyond executive government control.

7 Reinforce APS institutional integrity to sustain the highest standards of ethics

In particular to legislate to give the Public Service Commissioner (PSC) the power to instigate their own reviews of integrity and ethics, and to place obligations on agency heads and senior staff to manage post-employment conflicts of interests.

The Government did not agree to give the PSC additional powers. It did not comment on the post-employment proposal but re-committed to ‘consider…establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commissioner [CIC] to reinforce integrity in the federal public sector’.

Comment: the CIC proposal, which is commended by the Review but is not the subject of a recommendation, remains to be implemented. The proposals for the PSC could be picked up by the CIC.

8 Harness external perspectives and capability by working openly and meaningfully with people, communities and organisations, under an accountable Charter of Partnerships

This recommendation includes a two-edged proposal to review privacy, FOI and record-keeping arrangements ‘to ensure they are fit for the digital age’ by on the one hand ‘supporting greater transparency and disclosure’ while on the other ‘exempting material prepared to inform deliberative processes from release under FOI’ (such material is currently protected under FOI but subject to a ‘balance of public interest’ test).

The Government ‘notes the proposal for a new far-ranging review of privacy, FOI and record-keeping arrangements…Any further reforms would be considered separately ..’

Comment: a case of be careful what you wish for? The Review’s approach, attempting perhaps to woo the government by a proposed tightening of FOI, was too clever by half.

11 Strengthen APS partnerships with ministers by improving support and ensuring clear understanding of roles, needs and responsibilities

Includes a proposal to amend the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 to establish a legislated code of conduct, with appropriate enforcement provisions, for ministerial advisers.

The Government does not agree to change arrangements for advisors.

Comment: No change likely to result in relation to the most glaring accountability gap in the federal government.

22 Standardise and systematise performance management to drive a culture of high achievement

Includes mandating a more robust performance management and accountability framework taking into account performance data and the views of external partners.

The Government accepts this recommendation.

Comment The subject of many reviews and reports but nevertheless a fully effective system of accountability needs to start at the level of the individual public servant.

26 Embed a culture of evaluation and learning from experience to underpin evidence-based policy and delivery

Including regular evaluation of policies and programs to be compulsory under Cabinet rules and made public unless exempted by Cabinet.

The Government does not support amending Cabinet rules to make evaluations compulsory, but ‘supports the appropriate publication of completed evaluations’.

Comment: Program and policy evaluation should be a cornerstone of accountability. The Government gives itself wriggle room.

35 Deliver value for money and better outcomes through a new strategic, service-wide approach to using external providers

Includes a proposed framework for use of external providers and more efficient procurement arrangements.

The Government accepts in part.

Comment: the proposals all relate to efficiency, value for money, and ‘agility’ and despite a passing reference to ‘embedd[ing] integrity’, contain nothing about ensuring accountability to Parliament and the public of activities outsourced to third parties.