Kevin Rudd has warned the nation’s top mandarins he is not afraid of privatising government services to slash spending or poaching private-sector staff to reinvigorate the public service.
In an address to heads of public service agencies and members of senior executive services in Canberra today, the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s plan to restore integrity and transparency to public service appointments.
Pledging to introduce a code of conduct for ministerial staff as well as ministers, Mr Rudd said the Government would lead on the issue of integrity and tackling conflicts of interest, not simply ask the nation’s public servants to reform their own departments.
Joking that he understood “your workload has been unusually heavy in recent months’’, Mr Rudd said the transition to a new government posed challenges for all.
“I know it well – for aficionados of the Yes Minister series, I’ve gone from being a Bernard to a Sir Humphrey and now a Jim Hacker,’’ he said.
“I should warn you that when it comes to my dealings with the public service, my background probably doesn’t make me more sympathetic – just more suspicious.’’
Mr Rudd said today the Government had a “contemporary view of the role of the state in service delivery’’.
“I do not have an ideological preference for the public sector, nor for the private sector. The question of how services are best delivered has not been resolved conclusively in favour of either the market or the state,’’ he said.
Mr Rudd said the seven elements of the Government’s vision for the Australian public service included reinvigorating the Westminster tradition of an independent public service with merit-based selection processes, building a professionalised public service committed to excellence; developing evidence-based policy making processes; enhancing the strategic policy capability of the public service; strengthening the integrity and accountability of government and sustaining high ethical standards.
Mr Rudd also said he was not afraid to poach private sector talent, because it was “about time we turned on its head the typecast view that a job in the public service is somehow second-best to a career in the private sector.’’
“For years, the private sector has poached and plundered talent from the public sector. The APS should equally seek out talent from the private sector,’’ he said.
“I also want to see more flexible pathways between the public sector and the private sector, research institutions and the community sector. We should also improve mobility between agencies within the APS and between the APS and state public sector agencies.’’
Mr Rudd also said in some instances private or community sector provision of government services may reflect a better use of limited public resources.
“Service delivery should be contestable, and decisions about the mix of the public and private sectors should be based on the available evidence on how to deliver services efficiently and effectively,’’ he said.
However, he conceded that, as many private sector businesses had already concluded, “outsourcing can sometimes be a false economy because it can hollow out an organisation’s important technical skills and know-how, to its long term detriment.”
“Corporate memory is important, especially in government, and we should ensure that it is not diminished by short-term assessments of the costs and benefits of how we implement decisions and deliver services.”
Mr Rudd said he hoped the changes the Government was proposing would reinvigorate the public service.
“We cannot afford a public service culture where all you do is tell the Government what you think the Government wants to hear,’’ he said.
“Public servants will not give frank and fearless advice if they think their career prospects or the continuity of their employment rest on them simply echoing a government’s own prejudices.
“As you know, the last change of government in 1996 saw many public servants removed from senior positions.
“Some people argued that on coming into office, the new Government should take a leaf out of the same book and remove agency heads who were seen as being politically aligned to the previous Government’s agenda. We took a very different view. We made a commitment last year that there’d be no ‘night of the long knives’ when we came to office. We said we’d treat the public service differently to the previous government, and we have honoured that commitment.’’
The Government was committed to rebuilding a culture of accountability across all levels.
“That begins with the Government’s political leadership. The Government cannot expect higher standards of integrity in the public service generally if it is not prepared to accept higher standards in its ministerial offices,’’ he said.
“We need to act decisively to tackle perceptions of conflicts of interest in government.
“The Government is doing that with the Standards of Ministerial Ethics, the Register of Lobbyists, and the Lobbying Code of Conduct.
“I have also foreshadowed my intention to introduce new codes of conduct relating to ministerial staff.
“Just as these high standards apply to ministers and their offices, I similarly expect the public service to comply with the APS Values and Code of Conduct and the Public Service Act.’’
Mr Rudd said the Government would also be enhancing the culture of transparency in government through reforms to Freedom of Information laws, including the abolition of conclusive certificates and the creation of a Freedom of Information Commissioner.