Why shouldn’t the Opposition have access to the public service?

The case for letting the shadow cabinet talk to a few public servants during the policy development phase – and not just for costings before the election –  is pretty simple. I  can sum it up like this:

“Protective Services Officers on every station!1!!!”  [see here]

That’s the sort of policy that only gets dreamed up in opposition, when you’ve got no real capacity to figure out the cost of things, or advice on prioritisation.

When you don’t have a Finance Department to run ideas by. When you are incapable of weighing costs against benefits. When the “policy advisors” you employ to kick ideas around are actually most comfortable playing footsies with focus groups.

If governments are changing often – as they seem to be in Victoria – most policy being implemented is an election commitment dreamed up by an opposition.

Some of the ideas oppositions have come up must be the result of eating a great deal of cheese before bed.

How about this: a paid parental scheme that funds people to have kids by matching their incomes for six months, up to $150,000 a year … and wait for it, it’s funded by a levy on a really small number of businesses! That’s a policy maker’s nightmare.

Providing access to the public servants might actually help keep shadow cabinets tethered to earth, and that would be good for all of us.

PROBLEMS AND (some) SOLUTIONS

1. It could cause information flow from one party to another.

If the Premier or Prime Minister wants to know what policies the other side are weighing up, they can just ask the head of the department. Since they decide that person’s tenure, the head of department might be reluctant to keep the opposition’s secrets.

Equally, a government lagging in the polls could see their plans quietly leaked to the opposition, if they are expected to be government soon.

The obvious solution to this is to create autonomous mini units inside each department that work for the opposition. The problem with that is …

2. It could politicise public servants. 

If a public servant’s job involves working for one side, they may become parochial and perhaps consider politics first and policy second.

Impartiality is lost and with it the distinction between ministers’ private offices and the public service. Furthermore if a great policy idea is offered only to one side of politics, the other side could cry foul.

The whole experiment would rest on the perceived integrity of the public servants, but if there is too much high-mindedness the risk is that …

3. Oppositions wouldn’t use it.

Why would a busy opposition want to spend important campaign time dealing with a shiny-suited public servant who will just tell them no? Listening to boffins won’t win votes!

When did the last great idea come out of the public service? Think tanks, newspapers, universities, websites and even blogs are full of policy ideas. The public service doesn’t have a monopoly on advice any more – they mainly renovate and repair bad ideas sourced from elsewhere to save them from destroying the budget (see protective services officers).

Any other problems or any other upsides that should be mentioned? Please use the comments section below to elaborate!

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

7 thoughts on “Why shouldn’t the Opposition have access to the public service?”

  1. Hi Jason. I think this is a terrible idea, in the main. The public service works for the government of the day. Not for ‘good policy outcomes in jurisdiction X’. If political parties are making promises they can’t keep, that is an issue but to solve it, it is not necessary to undo generations of tradition around the interaction of the executive and the bureaucracy. I think over cycles, parties will learn more about how to engage on policy in the new media landscape and adapt. Trust in the public service is probably amongst the most important things in Australian government and playing around with it to ‘solve’ this particular issue is dangerous and ignores the massive benefit for the public and how governments operate. I also think these types of ideas are emblematic of how the public service is largely misunderstood in the mainstream.

    However, there are always examples where this works at the margins. The PBO at the federal level is a good example. But that is strictly related to costings and does not comment on the value or not of particular policies.

    Also, do you really believe ideas or reforms don’t come from the public service anymore (“When did the last great idea come out of the public service?”)? They might not dream up every idea under the sun but the role played, particularly shaping policy to suit Australian society, is of the utmost importance. If you look at the policy around climate change, you can go back over two decades and see this. Things like the Shergold review stick out, as does the way Howard was nudged towards an ETS, in large part, by the public service. In an area I’m interested in (immigration policy), the Department plays a massive role in initiating, shaping and determining policy outcomes. Blithely dismissing the role of the public service is not conducive to good public policy in Australia (of course, this doesn’t mean everything is perfect – it’s not). I’m less aware of state bureaucracies but I would’ve thought the impact would be even higher than the federal level because of the expertise and influence. Cheers Henry

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    1. Good points.

      I do concede that ideas are given energy by the public service, even where they don’t conceive of them. Cutting subsidies to private health insurance is a good example. Public servants have great access to government and so can be very influential at certain times.

      When I was at Treasury we were always reminded that we had to compete for the minister’s mindshare. That seems to involve, these days, being a bit partisan:
      http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/public-service/remember-when-public-servants-were-impartial-20140803-3d1yf.html

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      1. That was a good article but I think a touch unfair on Parkinson.

        I think the competition for a Minister’s attention is great for the public service and over the long-term it will be highly beneficial. However at the moment, given the broad misunderstanding about the role the public service plays in industry (and sometimes even in politics), it might take a little bit longer than we expect.

        My personal opinion is that most Minister’s would take what the APS say pretty seriously and the onus is primarily on other stakeholders to prove why their policy ideas are have more merit than competing views within the public service. Admittedly, this is a poorly informed opinion.

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      2. A good question – and perhaps a topic for another post – is where the NDIS idea came from. It just seemed to emerge one fine day.

        Unlike Gonski or the mining tax I’m not aware of it coming from a particular review or being associated with any peak body. Perhaps it just came out of the APS?

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    1. Thanks Marcus.

      I feel obliged to say I do know about the PBO! I was referring to it above where I said “not just costings.” Clearly a less oblique reference would have helped this piece.

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    2. Hi Jason. Appreciate the point but I think the pbo us sufficient. Costings are the hardest to get right and often become the defining part of the election commitment. So would be helpful for all if cost of psos, etc was accurate.
      Re NDIS I think that was a PC recommendation. And was pushed hard and with evidence by Victorian public servants.

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