Podger calls for recalibration of APS ‘reward’ system

Retired senior public servant and professor of public policy Andrew Podger has written a discussion paper on further reform of the APS, including recommendations to rebalance ‘rewards and penalties’ embedded in the current system.

Professor Andrew Podger

“The most important recommendations relate to rebalancing the rewards and penalties in the system, to reward doing the right thing and not just for pleasing the minister even when that involves doing the wrong thing” Professor Podger told Government News.

“Hence reinstating secretaries’ tenure, strengthening professional performance management and strengthening the merit-basis for appointments.”

Professor Podger’s paper says the 2019 Thodey Review, the Robodebt Royal Commission and numerous parliamentary and auditor general reports all highlighted shortcomings in the APS.

The paper notes there have been some steps to rehabilitate the service including establishing the NACC, cutting back on consultants and undertaking to better support whistleblowers.

However many issues remain, Professor Podger says, including a failure to legislate the Thodey recommendations; ‘tardiness and secrecy’ of investigations into alleged breaches of the code of conduct; and a continued lack of clarity about APS values and the roles of public servants relative to ministerial staff.

He says his paper aims to highlight reforms that the government can still pursue, and which could complement current moves to protect the Public Service from ‘the risks of administrative and political whim’.

Making it harder to sack secretaries

A key proposal would see secretaries retain tenure at level, but with the expectation that they could be rotated from time to time, with the Remuneration Tribunal asked to review remuneration accordingly.

It would also be accompanied by a much stronger merit-based appointment process and firmer professional performance management of secretaries who could still be sacked for incompetence, health reasons or improper behaviour.

Professor Podger also makes recommendations aimed at strengthening and entrenching APS values, keeping ministers and secretaries at arms length, introducing tighter merit processes for ambassadors and consulate heads, minimising conflicts of interest, further reducing reliance on consultants and contractors and ensuring lower level work isn’t being done by higher levels in the APS hierarchy.

Among his proposals:

  • A more substantial revision of the APS Values in the Public Service Act to better reflect the need to be professional, ethical and apolitical; and as the administrative and customer service arm of government
  • Strengthening appointment processes for secretaries and making it harder for them to be sacked on a political whim
  • Requiring consultation with the leader of the opposition before the PM advises the GG on a new APS Commissioner
  • Introducing a ceiling of 5 per cent for non-professional career diplomats to discourage ‘non-meritorious appointments’ as ambassadors and high commissioners.
  • Introducing a code of conduct for ministerial staff
  • All consultancies worth more than $250k to be based on open tender and all consultancies over $1m to be cleared by Finance and the Public Service Commission
  • Amend the Public Service Act to regulate conflicts of interest after leaving the public service, including requiring public servant to declare any offer of outside employment where there might be a conflict of interest
  • Require all agencies to consult annually with the APS on SES structures

The paper has been commended by a group of former prominent public servants, who have endorsed it a serious contribution to the development of reform in the wake of Robodebt.

“While the Government has taken some useful steps to improve Commonwealth public administration, much more needs to be done,” they say.

Professor Podger told Government News he hoped the government would establish a process to consider his proposals seriously as it developed its promised next stage of legislative reform.

“I also hope the paper will generate wide discussion across the APS, the Parliament and amongst the interested public through various forums such as IPAA events,” he said.

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