Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, has vehemently rejected claims by the head the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, that inexperienced and meddlesome ministerial staffers are eroding the quality of policy development and public administration.
In an angry rebuke to Ms Westacott’s speech and proposed public service improvements last week, Mr Gray has accused Ms Westacott of seeking “to make scapegoats of dedicated public servants with inaccurate and unfair comments".
Ms Westacott’s criticisms of the activities of political staffers were made at the Institute of Public Administration Australia's 2012 International Congress in Melbourne.
She warned public servants that “your authority has been undermined by political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability [and that] your custodianship of the long-term policy agenda has been eroded by short-term thinking.
“Australia now has more personal staff per minister than many other comparable countries,” she said.
The Australian Financial Review has reported that Ms Westacott’s comments were supported by former Commonwealth Public Service chief, Terry Moran, who was appointed following the election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in 2007.
“Australia has one of the best public administrations in the world,” Mr Gray said. “The council’s chief executive [has] sought to make scapegoats of dedicated public servants with inaccurate and unfair comments.”
Mr Gray’s spirited defence of federal public servants comes as the Canberra bureaucracy braces for more cuts to from the Gillard government as it seeks to offset new spending commitments that are certain to be hit by falling tax revenue collections.
The territory of significant public service headcount reductions in Canberra is a treacherous one for the Gillard government after its Cabinet ministers repeatedly attacked Coalition state governments in Queensland and New South Wales for shedding tens of thousands of permanent staff.
A compounding issue across all jurisdictions has been comparatively big leaps in private sector productivity and cost reductions from new technologies like cloud computing and reduced software licencing costs that have flowed far more slowly in the public sector.
In her speech to the IPAA, Ms Westacott warned “that the necessary investment in capacity building, succession planning, technology and new ways of providing services just isn’t there.”
A major sticking point for improved service delivery and reduced costs has been enabling public users of government services to make meaningful transactions through government websites in the same way that they have been able to access internet banking and e-commerce services for more thyan a decade.
But Mr Gray defended the Gillard government’s track record on keeping bureaucratic discipline and said Labor’s approach to public sector management “had been to do the hard yards and identify efficiencies in non-staffing areas.”
The hard yards are expected to continue with expectations that incumbent multinational technology suppliers, particularly software stalwarts like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP will be targeted to bring technology costs back under control given the strength of the Australian dollar
A likely repeat target are IT contractors, whom are often former public servants, that have been dubbed the ‘coalition of the billing’.
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