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Public Service: undermined by political gatekeepers.

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The Business Council of Australia has delivered a scathing assessment of the state of the public service, saying its independent authority has been undermined by political gatekeepers, resulting in development of poor policy.

Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott called on public servants yesterday to rise up and ''regain control'' over their world.

The impact on Australia of a diminished public service was ''dangerously far-reaching'', she said in a scathing speech.

''I want to talk very frankly about restoring precious things about the civil service, things that I am deeply concerned are being lost,'' she said.

However, the influential businesswoman said the public service must be leaner.

''The public service must be smaller, more focused and more productive,'' she said.

''We need a comprehensive audit of the scope and size of government to forestall the need for tough corrections like we're seeing in Queensland.''

Ms Westacott called for removal of the ''no forced redundancy'' policy, reinstating the tenure of departmental secretaries, halving the allocation of personal staff in ministerial offices and establishing a mandatory code that prohibits ministers from bullying or directing public servants.

The union representing public servants agreed with Ms Westacott's call to strengthen the public service but said many of her plans would do the opposite.

Ms Westacott blamed the state of the public service for major policies ''unravelling before our eyes''.

She cited poor process, wrong architecture - ''a pre-determined political compromise dressed up as economic reform'' - flawed assumptions, disingenuous consultation and opaque communication.

''The fiscal implications of these flawed processes is huge,'' she said. ''Complex things done badly, political reforms disguised as economic reforms, are hugely expensive. They squander the community's appetite for reform, and its trust.

''But we are still seeing decisions made about regulation and spending programs involving large amounts of public funding without proper, transparent analysis of the costs, benefits and risks.

''When the community sees big money going to projects where the benefit is not clear, they lose confidence in the broader decision-making processes of government.''

Ms Westacott referred to the carbon tax and the Murray-Darling Basin, saying policy making must transcend political cycles.

In her speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia congress, she listed her core concerns as:

■ That many modern politicians have lost sight of the fundamental role of the public service;

■ That the authority of public servants has been undermined by political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability;

■ That public servants' custodianship of the long-term policy agenda has been eroded by short-term thinking; and

■ That there is a lack of investment in capacity building, succession planning and technology and that new ways of providing services are just not there.

''The effect of these trends is felt most keenly by public servants themselves,'' she said.

''The frustration from the lowest to the highest levels of seniority is palpable in every conversation I have.

''But its impact on Australia is dangerously far-reaching.''

The national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, said: '''Ms Westacott is right in saying the public service is a critical institution which needs strengthening. However, many of her prescriptions would do the opposite.

''The biggest threat to a high performing public service is the massive cuts proposed by the Coalition, with support from much of the business community.

''I am concerned the BCA appears to be backing Tony Abbott's massive cuts, disguised through yet another commission of audit.''

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Guest Thursday, 28 January 2021