Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Senior public servants should be term of government

The Barnett Government will soon have to deal with the vexed issue of whether or not to renew the contract of one of the State’s most high profile bureaucrats – Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan - and it will cause unnecessary angst for all involved, as usual.

Mr O'Callaghan’s clever strategy to build cosy relationships with the local media has made him one of the few free-range department heads in the Government. The Premier and his Cabinet openly acknowledge that he does a pretty good job as Commissioner, but secretly would like a bit more control over his public comments without the fear of a media backlash.

However, regardless of the individual involved, the current structure and culture of our administration makes all governments vulnerable to controversy when they consider the future of any senior public servant. This is mostly because Oppositions are always hungry to invent a conspiracy theory of the betrayal of a fine public officer if the incumbent doesn’t renew a contract and just as quickly slam the Government for supporting a dud if they choose to renew. It’s largely a no-win situation for the government.

I’ll explain how this recurring ugliness could be eliminated with a fairly simple change to senior public service contracts but first, a bit of background:

In the Western Australian public service, there are fundamentally three types of employees: term of government (TOG), fixed term contract and permanent.

At present, TOG employees are very low in number and typically found only in Ministerial offices.  The people in these positions are appointed by the relevant Minister and rarely keep their jobs when a government falls. In each Ministerial office the usual roles for TOG’s include the Chief of Staff, Media Adviser, Ministerial/Parliamentary Liaison Officer and perhaps a Principal Policy Adviser or two. Importantly, the Leader of the Opposition is also afforded a number of TOG employees in his office.

The remainder of the more than 150,000 public sector employees (PSC Annual Report 2011) in Western Australia make up what is commonly referred to as the ‘bureaucracy’ and are broadly contracted as either fixed term or permanent. Regardless of their specific contract conditions, these people are usually considered “apolitical and professional” servants of the public. There is a general expectation that fixed term contracts will be renewed when they expire unless the role is redundant or the employee initiates a change.

Indeed, Premier Barnett has made a number of statements over the years that confirm his strong personal view that TOG’s are very different to their more secure cousins:
A term-of-government employee comes and goes with the government, comes and goes with the minister, and come and goes with the circumstance. A public servant cannot be moved on; that is the difference… What cannot be done under this government is the sacking of a public servant.” (Legislative Assembly, Wednesday, 19 May 2010)
While this commitment is no doubt very comforting to unionists and those employed by the public service, the Premier’s rigid  view is a double edged sword for both the Government and the tax-payers who fund the unsackable 10% of Perth’s population.

Mr Barnett’s staunch defence of the traditional “a public sector job is forever” philosophy is on balance, probably in the interest of the broader public. After all, government employees normally aren’t the highest paid in their field and high churn costs the government money in recruitment, training and lost productivity. I’ll go along with this even though the Barnett Government is currently around 20,000 public sector FTEs over its election commitment.

However, the Premier’s dogmatic implementation of this policy is problematic on two fronts – inefficiency and recalcitrance.

How do you improve the efficiency of an underperformer when they know they “cannot” be sacked? The uncomfortable truth more often than not in the public service is to promote them. Yep, you read it correctly, promote an underperformer. It is widely acknowledged that the fastest way to get a troublesome person out of your team is to move them up – clearly not ideal for the taxpayer and far from fair for those who do the right thing, work hard and don’t get promoted.

A far bigger problem caused by the no-sacking mantra occurs when a government inherits recalcitrant bureaucrats, particularly those in senior positions.

Firstly, let me put this on the record – the vast majority of public servants are excellent people doing the best they can to manage a constant fight for resources and cyclic, back-to-the-future policy changes. But occasionally, governments are faced with a Director General or other executive (on a salary of more than $150,000) who either can’t get their head around the new policies of an incoming administration or outright doesn’t want to. Then what?

The answer is fairly obvious if you concede that very senior public sector employees have to be somewhat political. It’s clear that Premier Barnett will disagree with this notion, but I contest that while bureaucrats in these positions can not act politically, they can’t be truly apolitical either –they need to be quite uniquely multi-partisan: that is, their job is to enable the political party in power, regardless of who that might be. The uncomfortable truth is that means they are often required to perform duties that advantage the government at the disadvantage of the opposition – and in that way, it’s a no-brainer that these roles have a political aspect.

And when a head of department fails (either due to lack of ability or lack of willingness) to fully embrace the policies of a new government, departments often become dysfunctional. To be fair, it’s sometimes a hell of an ask – imagine that a Director General has built a strong, trusting and friendly relationship with the Minister they have been working with for a number of years and within weeks, a new government is elected and asks that person to turn their department around and run in the opposite direction. Not easy for either the Minister or department head involved.

My proposed solution? “Term of government plus 6 months” contracts for heads of departments.

The “term of government” aspect turns the expectation of a renewal upside down – i.e. the person who accepts the role assumes that the contract will probably end in 4 years. If it does, the separation happens without turmoil or conspiracy theories, much like they do in the private sector. However, to avoid a mass exodus of knowledge and expertise at every election, the “plus 6 month” addition allows for the new Minister to meet and work with the person before offering another contract or provides for an orderly handover if there is a change.

While I understand this proposition will scare the daylights out of life-long public servants, it is made in recognition of the fact that a lot of time and political energy is wasted trying to cajole some overly comfortable, reluctant or recalcitrant heads of department to execute changes that take some time to fully implement – such as the Barnett Government’s slow-moving environmental approvals reform.

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