A combination of codifying the expectations around secretaries, as well as increasing and normalising the number of public servants spending time in ministerial offices will strengthen the independence of the public service, Professor Davis said, calling secretaries’ appointments a “tricky issue”.
Senior public servants need to know they can work on a contentious area of policy without being punished for doing so by a new government, he said.
“I think that has incrementally changed over time, in a way that most people would see as not helpful,” Professor Davis said.
It’s possible the recommendation may get left on the cutting-room floor though, with the decision ultimately to be made by the government that wins the next election.
“I’m really pleased we’ve put it on the table and dealt with it, now government may choose, and because we’re not reporting until after the election, whoever the government is, may choose not to listen to us, but I’m pleased it’s being discussed.”
In a comment that may not be appreciated by those who bemoan the increasing use of consultants for policy work, Professor Davis said the public service needs to acknowledge that it may not always have the best advice, and that ministers are entitled to seek advice elsewhere.
“The world never goes back, so that’s one of life’s lessons, it never is like it was, with anything – you can’t do u-turns.”
“Consultants are going to be a part of the future, that’s just unambiguous and there are many specialist consulting practices who are as good as anybody at providing detailed advice on core policy questions.”
Research from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government commissioned by the review and released last week says the use of consultants by the public service can be seen as a strength, and Professor Davis said the review is testing whether the use of consultants is contributing to better policy advice, or just providing cover for ministers.
“There are areas where the Australian public service may never have been strong and there are excellent people to look out for and then there are areas where we need contending advice, you actually need to go out and test advice, particularly in tricky areas like security where you’ve got strong views and you just need to be able to test whether you’re getting good advice.”