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Why public servants leak


Kevin Rudd All is not well between the Prime Minister and the men and women of the Commonwealth Public Service. There are considerable settling-in difficulties. This was evident in the recent Fuelwatch episode, where somebody in the public service — not a ministerial office — leaked the Cabinet documents on this issue.

Is the Prime Minister driving the public service too hard? Or does he in fact need to spill some senior public service heads left over from the Howard years, to send a clear disciplinary signal to public servants in response to this serious leak of Cabinet information?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. The Labor Government is certainly making public servants work harder. Many public service policy areas became comatose under Howard. There wasn't much interesting policy work going on, and it mostly got done in ministers' offices or in trusted highly politicised outposts.

Howard staffed key policy areas such as national security and counter-terrorism with his most trusted people, rotating them in and out of ministerial offices. The sidelining of Treasury on water policy was a typical example of the style.

Rudd says he wants the public service to get back to the traditions of efficiency and relevance that it had under Fraser, Hawke and Keating. He says he wants it to learn again how to work harder and smarter.

My impression, however, is that he and some of his ministers do not yet trust public servants to deliver — perhaps with good reason, in some cases. A lot of public service work is being done in a great hurry, then shelved without follow-up. The ministerial office minder system remains dominant.

This style risks becoming a self-fulfilling expectation. It can only demoralise public servants keen to make a new start under Labor, if they come to feel that their departments are suspected of not giving first-rate advice.

Are departments being given tight-deadline work to keep them busy and perhaps 'road-test' their performance, while the most important policy thinking is still being done, as under Howard, in ministerial offices? I think so.

Rudd, a former public servant himself, still seems undecided how much trust to put in the public service. That is what makes the recent Fuelwatch issue instructive, out of all proportion to its inherent minor policy significance. Cabinet was entitled to take the course of action it took. But perhaps it was a final goad to someone in a public service that feels overworked and under-appreciated, thus leading to the leak.

What to do about such leaks? Perhaps a bit of ceremonial head-lopping at the top, pour encourager les autres?

In Crikey this week Stephen Bartos suggested five possible reasons for public service leaks: accident, individual ideological meltdown, to expose corruption or malfeasance at the top, to expose a government's policy misdirection or misinformation, or to give ammunition to the Opposition. Of these five, only the third is seen as acceptable by public service professionals.

I don't think any of the departmental heads left in place after Howard's departure would be so unprofessional as to leak material to the media or Opposition. For officers who have reached this top level, the ethic of serving the government of the day loyally and efficiently has become instinctive. On this view, the proper course for a public servant with serious policy objections to what his government is doing against his advice is to quietly resign or seek transfer — never to leak information or blow the whistle.

Leaking, or conspicuous public policy dissent, is most likely to happen in middle policy management — around assistant secretary and senior adviser level — where a good deal of politically sensitive material is accessible to people who might combine personal grievances with a still lively sense of the public interest.

Would a 'Night of the Long Knives' have done anything to prevent the leak? Should Rudd have removed some notoriously Howard-compliant departmental heads upon taking office? Perhaps — not because any of these persons is likely to leak, but because their continued presence might send a demotivating signal to middle policy management that nothing much has changed in policy terms.

Thus, if a government that came in on a strong platform of social justice and human values continues to do things such as hound David Hicks, delay natural justice to Mohammed Haneef, clear up a backlog of refugee cases without much evidence of compassion, prosecute indefinitely a cruel civil war in Afghanistan, and do little to educate the public on the realities of global warming and peak oil, it might expect some public servants to leak.

If accompanied by a real change in policy approach on such matters, reshuffling a few departmental heads might do some good in signalling to younger public servants that reform was underway. If not, it would simply be reshuffling the deckchairs in a public service that still feels a bit marginalised.

Australian Public Service Commission

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and Cambodia (1994–97).

Topic tags: tony kevin, commonwealth public service, kevin rudd, fuelwatch, stephen bartos, cabinet leak



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Existing comments

The laws of nature and mechanics apply. The force applied decreases after a body is reversed and set in motion in another direction. It is the same in politics. The extreme policies of the last 12 reactionary years seem to be forgotten. An extreme effort is required to reverse the ship of state and point it another direction.

This needs to be affirmed and explained to the public servants to gain their support in the grand design to restore humanity and sanity once more to the nation. Being a part of restoring these goals should be the spur, coupled with compensations once the ship of state is back on course.

But in order for this to happen the public servants at the coal face must act professionally. Some will support the new vision, others will find it difficult to escape from the warped Howard ideology. These latter are the problem. But the majority of public servants will mirror the majority of Australians who rejected Howard. It is these public servants, together with the professionals who are above politics and serve the elected government, that must deal with the malcontents who are leaking to their old Liberal masters. It's they who will solve the problem. And must be encouraged to do so. Better that having a night of the "long knives".

Reg Wilding | 05 June 2008  

Thanks, Tony Kevin, for another piece that is so enlightening because so full of experience and practised judgement.

Joseph Castley | 06 June 2008  

I just want to know why the cowards don't leak real stuff like details of SEIV-X that we are all aware they know, or the Bakhtiyari case.

To leak such nonsense I would look no further than Peter Hendy and his mates with an axe to grind over his role in the chamber of commerce and the children over board.

He is after all now working for Nelson.

Marilyn | 12 June 2008  

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