Is the public service as frank and fearless as it used to be?
In Changing Fortunes: A History of the Australian Treasury I describe the art of policy advising as being able to:
understand the true nature of a problem
predict the consequences of policy options
frame effective policy advice.
To be influential, policy advisers need to find a balance between:
having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to maintain a strong policy framework; and
having sufficient responsiveness to ministers to be listened to.
Over its history Treasury has found this balance at times, for example through the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, but struggled to find it at other times
The Treasury of the 1970s was unquestionably frank and fearless – but fell fowl of the Whitlam and Fraser governments on key issues and was pushed out into the cold.
The Treasury of the last decade has been very responsive, and even close to government, but become more an information provider and implementer of policies than a policy adviser and influencer in the process.
But is the public service of today frank and fearless in its advice? In Treasury’s case it would still claim to be frank and fearless in the policy advice it provides. It is the policy advice it doesn’t provide that is the issue.
To explain that, in the political chaos of the last decade the habit has developed of not providing policy advice that ministers don’t agree with. Policy advice on contentious issues now is discussed with ministers’ offices in its preparation and if the office indicates that the minister would not be comfortable with the proposed advice an information brief goes instead. The office’s (politically attuned) policy advice can then be provided over the top of the Treasury information brief.
In this sense, the public service has partially vacated the policy advising field, leaving the political offices and external stakeholders to fill that space. While there are many talented people in those offices and externally, their advice is generally not based on an impartial, robust policy framework.
The government, therefore, is left without a strong source of genuine policy advice. The consequent lack of a consistent economic narrative over the last decade is plain for all to see.