Rise of the Born-Again-Bureaucrat: over 60, at the top and loving it

Secrets found... old Parliament House, Canberra
There is a pressing need to upgrade public service technology.


Many senior and upper middle career public servants in their fifties might be contemplating prospect of taking redundancy payout to help their superannuation and the Abbott government’s cull of 16,500 APS bodies.

But the federal bureaucracy’s two most senior new appointments are both men in their early sixties – and returning from a well remunerated stint in merchant banking.

Now there’s a contrast that’s worth thinking about  . . . not least because most mass cleanouts of the bureaucracy usually represent a literally golden opportunity to cash out right at the end, or midway through, a career when life changes can sometimes naturally prompt a role change.

You could call the appointments of Michael Thawley as head of Prime Minister and Cabinet and John Fraser as Secretary of the Treasury the rise of the ‘Born Again Bureaucrat’ (or BABs if you prefer a TLA)

Their arrival certainly symbolises a lot:

Firstly, there is definitely life after sixty at the top of the bureaucracy, even if it comes from outside the public sector.

Secondly, the signal now coming out of Coalition HQ (apart from the blaring fire alarm) is a strong desire to transplant much more talent from the private sector into the bureaucracy — and Abbott said as much in his Christmas thankyou speech.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – the return of two such senior and experienced BABs from banking is likely to make them single term appointments, but both with a strong mandate and a free hand to make significant and potentially controversial and deeply unpopular changes.

Put most simply, both Thawley and Fraser have nothing to lose in shaking up the APS and the role of the public sector in the economy because they are almost returning pro-bono. A little bit older, a little bit bolder and on a mission.

There can be also be little doubt that Thawley and Fraser will be primary proponents of change tasked with driving the government’s outcomes-based agenda as rank and file APS staff bunker down for a protracted industrial battle with the hard man of APS bargaining, Senator Eric Abetz.

And while both Thawley and Fraser will draw salaries at in the higher six digit range, it’s still a big step down from the kind of money on offer in the financial sector where clearing the ‘magic million’ is regarded as a rite of passage for younger executives. Both have eschewed a life of golf, lunch and plump directorships.

In many ways, the appointments mark a return to the settings of the latter half of the Howard era, when change agents like former Prime Minister and Cabinet head Peter Shergold made no secret of his view that more APS positions should be opened to applicants from the private sector who could bring fresh ideas, thinking and innovation to meet public policy aims.

One of Shergold’s most enduring frustrations was that transactional processes for customers remained rooted in the 1980s while the rest of the economy motored into the digital economy in top gear, leaving government services in their dust. The internet revolution somehow stalled.

While there has been conspicuous leadership on the digital front at Human Services, other big transactional shops like Tax and the Department of Veterans Affairs still have a long way to go.

All at some stage in the near term, all will have to re-architect their core systems, a high risk, high impact and high cost undertaking and Treasurer Joe Hockey has already put it in the billions. And in Treasury there is no secret the government wants much faster access to economic data so it has a more ‘real-time’ view of the economy.

In the local banking sector, only the Commonwealth Bank of Australia has successfully pulled off the core systems replacement feat and left its competitors scrambling to make up lost ground.

Whether Messrs Thawley and Fraser can attract the kind of talent that pulled off the CBA’s tech-propelled productivity revolution to the public sector – as either prime contractors or permanent talent – will be the proof in the pudding.

But they will certainly know where to start looking.

That said, with some ministers hell-bent on starting an industrial dispute over below inflation wage offers that have already derailed rafts of legislation in the Senate, the pair of hand-picked ex-bankers and born-again-bureaucrats will certainly have their work cut out for them.

At least the only career-limiting-moves Thawley and Fraser really need to worry about will be other peoples’ – even if some of them might be ministers.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at editorial@governmentnews.com.au.  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

One thought on “Rise of the Born-Again-Bureaucrat: over 60, at the top and loving it

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required