Public Service

The Mandarins’ Ever-Changing Brief

mandarinIn my time as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008, ensconced for hours in the corner of the cabinet room in Parliament House, my mind would sometimes wander from my note-taking. On occasion, gazing dreamily around the Gould bird prints on the wall, I would imagine how different the processes of government would have been a century earlier.

Alfred Deakin, I am fairly confident, would have been a fine prime minister to serve. That judgment is based not solely on the influential role Deakin played as a founding father of Federation, nor on the political prowess he displayed during the early years of the Commonwealth, nor even on the skilful manner in which he negotiated the creation of a single united non-Labor party. Rather, I am influenced by the character of leadership he displayed. He would have been a good person for whom to work.

I would have admired Deakin’s austere self-discipline, “extreme punctiliousness in the matter of public money” (he routinely under-claimed for expenses) and unwavering punctuality (indeed, when Prime Minister Barton turned up late for his first cabinet meeting he found himself upbraided in front of his colleagues by Deakin, his Attorney-General).

My predecessors enjoyed working for Deakin. Attlee Hunt, who was Secretary of External Affairs, cast the typical judgment of a mandarin on the prime ministers he served. Barton, he found, was “extravagant of his time”, spent too much time talking to visitors and let his work pile up. Deakin, by contrast, “sees me twice daily and never leaves a paper undealt with”.

The key reason I imagine I would have enjoyed working for Deakin, however, is the influence he wielded as the Commonwealth’s first Attorney-General from 1901 to 1903. Deakin has paternity rights four times over: as a father of the nation, of the modern Liberal Party, of compulsory voting and (far less extolled) of the Commonwealth Public Service.

This latter achievement may come as something of a surprise. Deakin’s first biographer, Walter Murdoch, was singularly uninterested. As he explained, Deakin’s main work:

while he was Barton’s Attorney-General, was to prepare a number of “machinery measures” … and to steer them through Parliament. It was of course an absolutely necessary and all-important task … but an account of these measures—of the Public Service Act, for instance—would make dull reading and could hardly throw any light on Deakin’s personality.

I do not believe that is true. Deakin placed high store on the careful and determined manner in which he had established the machinery of Commonwealth administration. At a time of great political volatility, in which governments were made and unmade seven times in the first decade, he was determined to ensure that “the decencies of official procedure are formulated”. In an era of endless negotiation, coalition brokering and shifting alliances, Deakin saw a professional public service as a means of providing steadiness and consistency. He was frustrated that Barton, when prime minister, did not think sufficiently about the significance of public administration.

Deakin cared deeply about such matters. His Secretary when he was Attorney-General, Robert Garran, remembered that only on two occasions did Deakin involve himself substantively in drafting legislation—on arbitration and on the public service. Reflecting on his achievements, Deakin was proud that “all the new constitutional and departmental machinery has been organised and set in motion over the whole of Australia”. A later biographer, J.A. LaNauze, is correct in suggesting that “it was unlikely that Deakin was ever again personally as happy in the purely administrative aspects of the work of a responsible Minister as he was during his term as first Attorney-General”.

Even as prime minister he remained enamoured of a national government administration. When he drew up the eight planks of the platform of the Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909, the seventh was a commitment to economy and efficiency in the Commonwealth Public Service. Deakin was convinced that Labor’s relative lack of financial and managerial capacity would tend to extravagance and profligacy in their administration of the public sector. His government, he was persuaded, would do far better in ensuring that the public service operated effectively and frugally.

That ethos, certainly, was close to the heart of the first Public Service Commissioner, D.C. McLachlan, appointed under the 1902 Act “for the regulation of the Public Service”. McLachlan, in his first annual report, emphasised that:

The Commonwealth Public Service must not be looked upon as an asylum for the indolent or the incompetent. Each officer will be expected to show evidence of a strenuous official life, to work diligently and conscientiously and legitimately earn the salary he receives. Efficiency and economy must be the watchwords of this Service if public confidence is to be attained and maintained.

Deakin would have approved the sentiment. Competence, diligence, conscientiousness and efficiency were the measure of his character.

Thinking about Alfred Deakin’s formative role in establishing the Commonwealth Public Service, and the manner in which he inspired the Secretaries who served him, has prompted me to think more carefully about the relationship I had with prime ministers and ministers of varied political persuasion, character and leadership styles. It has also given me pause for thought, more generally, on the role of Australia’s public service elite.

I am interested in the complex working relationship that exists today between ministers and their senior public servants. Often the latter are characterised as “mandarins”. Their role is steeped in the Westminster tradition of democratic governance, as it took shape following the Northcote–Trevelyan reforms of the UK Civil Service after 1854. They stand at the pinnacle of a career public administration, which is selected on merit, schooled in integrity and held publicly accountable. As leaders they are expected to be independent and non-partisan. Their responsibility is to serve successive governments with equal commitment. Ministers, collectively, determine what is in the public interest, subject to parliamentary scrutiny and support and judicial interpretation. A professional, career-based public service executes their decisions.

That’s the theory. The reality is more complex. It’s far too simple to assert that ministers decide and their public servants implement. Any government needs advice on policy, including on its design and delivery. Ministers expect to receive honest appraisals from their senior public servants of their policy proposals or to be presented by those officials with policy options that help to fulfil the government’s political agenda. Ministers may even find their own ideas politely criticised as inadequate, ill-conceived, ineffective or even—for mandarins exploit well the politicians’ natural inclination to risk-aversion and self-preservation—courageous. Yet if ministers decide to proceed, they expect the public service to deliver their policy with dedication (and with no hint of public criticism).

It’s not an easy relationship. Public servants who resist ministerial direction on the basis of their avowed independence are likely to be regarded as unresponsive. They do not obey orders. In contrast, public servants who respond too energetically to ministerial direction are often portrayed as politicised. They jump to command. Ministers and mandarins may behold their respective behaviours differently: one person’s assertiveness is another person’s recalcitrance. It’s an exercise in shared power. Forget “frank and fearless”: think “fraught and fragile”.

According to Patrick Weller, the great scholar of Australian public administration, the 1940s and 1950s most truly represented “the era of the mandarins”. In the Commonwealth Public Service they were epitomised by the “seven dwarfs”, figures of short stature but immense influence: Nugget Coombs, John Crawford, Henry Bland, Alan Brown, Richard Randall, Frederick Sheddon and Roland Wilson. Other eminences—Arthur Tange, Alan Westerman, John Bunting and Fred Wheeler—followed in their footsteps. All were great. All were men.

These mandarins wielded immense authority and exuded considerable self-importance. The administrative world in which they plied their trades was not nearly as constrained as it was for me. Power was far less trammelled. Theirs was almost the only stream of advice. Ministers relied on their Secretaries for assistance. The mandarins were a class apart, distinguished from most public servants by the breadth of their education and intellect. Their dominance and ascendancy were rarely challenged.

Yet the so-called golden age of the mandarin immortals was also marked by intense territorial warfare, the exercise of monopoly power, weak collegiality and—by contemporary standards—a lack of public accountability. To the extent that the departmental secretaries were stronger, ministers were weaker. At best, ministers found themselves too dependent on mandarins who revealed little obvious enthusiasm for their political goals. At worst, effective responsibility for setting the public interest sat with officials rather than elected representatives.

I believe it is a good thing that mandarin power has been progressively reduced. I see little value in monopoly power and none at all within the structures of democratic governance. The question is why the changes have occurred and whether the balance has now shifted too far from mandarins to ministers. Just how responsive should Secretaries or Director-Generals be to their political masters; to what extent should their confidential exercise of power be open to scrutiny and review; how has their influence been weakened or corrupted by the introduction of ministerial political advisers; and has the public service been politicised?

Let me begin by considering the extent and manner by which the policy counsel provided by mandarins to their ministers has been weakened by the change in their working environment. Any mandarin must wield a degree of independence in providing apolitical advice and implementing policy, but must also serve successive elected governments. It’s a question of balance.

Since Federation, there have always been fears that professional bureaucrats will become too powerful in their own right. In 1911 a Department of the Prime Minister was created. Its first Secretary was Malcolm Shepherd, who had served as Deakin’s private secretary. He was a controversial choice. To many he appeared little more than a jumped-up, high-speed shorthand typist with ambitions far beyond his capacity. When serving Deakin he had operated as a general factotum. No longer. According to Andrew Fisher’s biographer, David Day, the new prime minister anticipated that the appointment of Shepherd would give him more “bureaucratic muscle”.

Contemporaries were horrified. Shepherd found himself roundly criticised for pursuing power and building bureaucratic empires. According to the Melbourne Punch, by 1911 the ingratiating Shepherd had made himself indispensable to ministers and prime ministers: he “breaks them in, tutors them in their duties, bits them, curbs them, trains them to saddle and harness”. A century ago, as now, the fear was that behind the public pretence, it was the mandarins who actually wielded the power. They held the reins. They had their feet in the stirrups.

For most of Australia’s democratic history this has been the prevailing view of the relationship between ministers and mandarins. As late as the 1990s Michael Pusey could write a collective portrait of departmental secretaries as a sinister group who by stealth had foisted a neo-liberal agenda of economic rationalism on their unsuspecting and politically weak masters. To Pusey mandarins were “the ‘switchmen’ of history … When they change their minds the destiny of nations takes a different course.” Most Left-oriented journals agreed. Australian Society hailed the book as an analysis which “penetrates the club of free market bureaucrats to reveal the mind, manner and machination of Canberra’s top men”.

Yet today the prevailing sentiment, at least in the media, is that the pendulum of power has swung. It is the Secretaries who now find themselves portrayed as ridden hard. They are most often stereotyped as government flunkeys who accept too willingly their ministers’ will. They are, according to a devastating portrayal by Margo Kingston, mere lackeys, careerists and political stooges. If a minister dismisses their advice, they acquiesce.

That avowed subservience is often explained by reference to the changes introduced to Secretaries’ working conditions: dispensing with the concept of “permanent head” in 1984; introducing fixed-term contracts in 1994; and, subsequently, allowing those contracts to be terminated by government. As a result the position of Australian mandarins, compared to elsewhere in the Westminster world, is precarious. They retain their positions at the pleasure of the prime minister. Given that their career is more at risk, does that mean that mandarins will become more cautious or responsive to political direction? Will they be more fearful and compliant?

I do not think this is necessarily so. My experience suggests that speaking truth to power is more a matter of conviction and courage than contractual condition. Moreover modern employment conditions have not constrained the power of the Secretaries as much as other changes in their working environment. Rather it is three related elements—scrutiny, accountability and contestability—that have most shaped the evolving manner in which mandarins exercise authority.

The provision of policy advice is now subject to far more parliamentary questioning than in the past. Senate estimates committees were introduced from the early 1970s. Consequently, senior public servants find themselves facing intense political scrutiny of their administrative actions, especially any that might reflect badly on their minister.

Almost alone among my colleagues, I rather enjoyed being subject to interrogation. I found the attempt by Opposition senators to extract sensitive information to be almost a form of parliamentary theatre. I also recognised the value in being held to account for my managerial competency. It kept me on my toes.

Enhanced parliamentary scrutiny has been complemented by administrative review. Since 1982 Commonwealth documents have been open to the rigors of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, the provisions of which were strengthened in 2009 and 2010. In my view FOI is a good thing. It enhances the transparency of policy advice, administrative decision-making and government service delivery. It enables citizens to challenge the manner in which they are treated. The problem is that it can also constrain the content, form and mode by which public servants present advice.

Many mandarins of the past strongly opposed the introduction of FOI for such reasons. They feared it would become difficult to maintain confidentiality under pressure from an expansive judiciary. The recent review of FOI by a former mandarin, Allan Hawke, found that such concerns still remain, thirty years on. Some deliberative processes, such as the preparation of cabinet papers, remain exempt from scrutiny. Yet many respondents argued that this exemption fails adequately to protect the wider range of written briefing papers that public servants prepare.

They were worried that the possibility of public disclosure limits the capacity of officials to provide comprehensive advice to ministers. With this in mind the review recommended that the exemptions for cabinet documents be widened to include policy “considerations” and be extended to a broader range of draft ministerial briefings. I support this. My firm view is that governments should in general be judged on the decisions they make rather than on the public service advice they reject.

It is not just FOI that makes things harder. There exists a panoply of administrative review mechanisms, including since 1976 the investigative powers of a Commonwealth Ombudsman (which have now been enhanced by the Public Interest Disclosure Act). The actions of mandarins have never been more transparent. Yet the public, and more particularly the media, still think too much advice is provided behind closed doors. My position, hard to win in the court of public opinion, is that it is more likely that frank and fearless debate will take place between ministers and mandarins when it is between them alone. Believing that confidentiality is the basis of personal trust, I always sought to identify public service “leakers”.

The question of the mandarins’ ability to influence ministers also relates to the increased role now played by political advisers. Public service advice is today more contestable than in the past. “Staffers” were first introduced at a state level by Premier Don Dunstan in South Australia and at the federal level by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Coming to government after long periods in opposition, Dunstan and Whitlam were unconvinced of the ability of public servants to implement their change agenda. They wanted support from advisers who shared their political perspective and could embrace their reform enthusiasms. After initially contemplating the appointment of aligned public servants (such as the “temporary civil servants” who now work in Downing Street) the Commonwealth decided on the establishment of a separate employment category.

In 1984 the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act created a class of advisers employed outside the public service. There are now around 420 personal staff working for the government and more than 160 employed by the Opposition and minor parties, although the Abbott government is committed to reducing these numbers. The ability of this group to exert ministerial direction, or at least to act as gatekeepers to the ministers they serve, is often perceived as weakening the authority of mandarins and pressuring them to be more responsive to political direction.

I’m not so sure. Indeed I’ve broken ranks with many of my erstwhile colleagues who complain that they now find themselves undermined by “the boy scouts in the minister’s office”. They don’t much like being second-guessed by advisers who are still “wet behind the ears”. I empathise. Yet in my heart I think the policy advice of mandarins should be challenged. Ministerial advisers are a vital part of contemporary political life, with their power to instigate policy, to comment upon it and on occasion to oppose it. Their contribution can add real value to discussion of options. Indeed the presence of advisers allows mandarins to be robustly non-partisan in their advice, knowing that those in the minister’s office are there to worry about the political challenges it may present. I have one important caveat: the advisers must be as responsible and accountable for their actions as the ministers and public servants between whom they work.

Another major change which alters the environment is the greater intrusiveness of the media. The job of governments has become much harder as a result of the constant pressure to feed the demand of twenty-four-hour news channels and to provide immediate responses. So, as a consequence, for the mandarins who serve them. The emergence of a large Canberra press gallery, the expanded role of electronic media in breaking news, the concomitant increase in newspaper opinion writers and the ever-greater influence of social media have vastly increased the power of the fourth estate. As processes of policy-making have become increasingly frenetic, and governing more complex, so the pressure on mandarins to provide instant advice has risen.

As a result the ministers’ media advisers have become particularly powerful. They demand immediate responses from public servants and then seek to weave their dull and obscure language into persuasive narratives or politically-adept rationalisation of self-inflicted crises. Speed and spin are sometimes more important than careful consideration. The occasions I was most exposed and harried as Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet were when I felt the need to respond as the media pack brayed ever louder for the resignation of the Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth; or to address successive revelations of bribery by the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq; or to answer questions on whether the Australian government should have had forewarnings of the Bali bombings. Like any mandarin during a political crisis, I was all too aware of how much I did not yet know when I was asked to provide advice on what to do and how to say it.

There is no easy answer to the question of the manner in which mandarins must exercise their power of advice—how often, and how vigorously, they must oppose or seek to modify the policy proposals of their ministers or continue to put forward initiatives that their ministers do not wish to consider. At some point which represents “the end of the day”, ministers decide on policy and their Secretaries implement it. The question, to which there is no neat response, is for how long and with what vigour do mandarins argue their case and at what stage and with what grace do they accept defeat. This is a matter of judgment, not politicisation.

The belief that mandarins are “political”, however, seems to be being interpreted ever more widely. Consider the concept, propounded by Professor Richard Mulgan, of “managerial politicisation”. This relates to the proposition that mandarins are on occasion selected not on the basis of their political partisanship but because of their managerial capacity. Often they are chosen to represent a fresh start. Their appointment “sends a message” to other Secretaries. What makes them “political” are the circumstances of their appointment and the qualities on which they are selected rather than their commitment to ministerial ideology.

I disagree. Choosing secretaries on the basis of managerial capability is not, in my judgment, political. Nor is the termination of their contract when a minister does not believe them able to demonstrate such qualities. Nevertheless, I do not support the removal of Secretaries immediately following a change of government. Many Secretaries who are poorly regarded by an Opposition, in part because they are closely associated with the minister for whom they work, are discovered by an incoming government to be effective performers for them. Often they are the mandarins who get things done, no matter which minister they serve. Secretaries should be judged on the basis of their performance and, equally important, on their capacity to build an effective working relationship with their minister.

The Secretaries’ authority has also been challenged by forms of joined-up governance. Governments now routinely partner with the private sector in the construction of public infrastructure and outsource much of the delivery of human services to the community sector. I strongly support this increased emphasis on cross-sectoral collaboration in designing and delivering public policy, but it makes life harder for mandarins. So does the increased influence of outside advocacy organisations. Professional lobbyists ply their trade. Within the corridors of power a “scout troop” of committed young advisers control access to their ministers even, on occasion, from the head of their department. There is a raucous babble of voices proffering advice. Secretaries have to fight for the attention of the minister they serve.

Yet the status and power of Secretaries have not been lost to history. Situational authority may have diminished but obituaries for the passing of the mandarins are premature. As James Button discovered during his sojourn in Canberra in 2009 and 2010, he could not “overstate the velvety power of the word ‘Secretary’ … the title spoke of the unchanging position to which [the] ultimate loyalty [of public servants] was owed”.

Indeed the power of the mandarin has in subtle but important ways been enhanced, although in forms that are often less visible to the ministers they serve. Secretaries can no longer aspire simply to be policy confidants to the minister. They must manage, not just administer. They need to focus on achieving results, not just oversighting process.

The emerging world of political collaboration is sometimes described (positively) as “network governance”, but often (negatively) as the “hollow”, “centreless” or “contract” state. Certainly political authority has become more dissipated. Yet the mandarin still has a central position amidst the multifarious actors who now play a role in influencing policy and the manner in which it is implemented. She (for the great men of public service history are today—thankfully—more likely to be women) will still be the person who shares with her minister the accountability for public administration, who offers counsel and advice on political decision-making, who shoulders the responsibility for program implementation and service delivery—and now, far more than in the past, manages the department, builds its capacity and facilitates the cross-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral creation of public value. That’s a massive task.

I am confident that Alfred Deakin, both as Attorney-General and as Prime Minister, would have approved.

Professor Peter Shergold AC was Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008, and is now Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. This is a revised version of his 2013 Alfred Deakin Oration.



My account of Alfred Deakin is taken from Alfred Deakin, ‘And Be One People’: Alfred Deakin’s Federal Story (introduced by Stuart Macintyre), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995; Federated Australia: Selections from Letters to the Morning Post 1900-1910 (edited by J.A. La Nauze), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1968; Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: A Sketch, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1999 (first published 1923); J.A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965; J.A. La Nauze, “Alfred Deakin” in Six Great Australians: First Series, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1962; J.A. La Nauze & Elizabeth Nurser eds., Walter Murdoch and Alfred Deakin on ‘Books and Men’: Letters and Comments, 1900-1918, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974; Judith Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: from Alfred Deakin to John Howard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003; David Day, Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia, Harper Collins, Pymble, 2008; Australian Public Service Commission, A History in Three Acts: Evolution of the Public Service Act, 1999, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2004.

References on the contemporary public service include James Button, Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2012; Allan Hawke, Review of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and Australian Information Commission Act 2010, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2013; Margo Kingston, Not Happy John! Defending our Democracy, Penguin, Melbourne, 2004; Richard Mulgan, Politicising the Australian Public Service?, Commonwealth Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 1998; John Nethercote, ‘Revisiting the History Wars’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2012; Andrew Podger, ‘What Really Happens: Departmental Secretary Appointments, Contracts and Performance Pay in the Australian Public Service’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 66(2), 2006; Andrew Podger, John Wanna & Sam Vincent eds., With the Benefit of Hindsight: Valedictory Reflections from Departmental Secretaries, 2004-11, ANU ePress, Canberra, 2012; Michael Pusey, Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation Building State Changes its Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991; R.A.W. Rhodes, John Wanna & Patrick Weller, ‘Reinventing Westminster: How Public Executives Reframe Their World’, Policy and Politics, 36(4), 2009; Graham Richardson, ‘Keep Political Power where the Buck Stops: With the Elected Minister’, The Australian, 1 November 2013; Peter Shergold, ‘Lackies, Careerists, Political Stooges? Personal reflections on the current state of Public Service Leadership’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 63(4), 2004; Peter Shergold, ‘What Really Happens in the Australian Public Service: An Alternative View’, Australian Journal of Public Administration; 66(4), 2007; Peter Shergold, ‘Political Staffers Aren’t Killing the Public Service’, The Conversation, 26 October 2012; Peter Shergold, ‘Reform of the Australian Public Service’ in Don Markwell et al, eds., State of the Nation: Aspects of Australian Public Policy, Ballan, Connor Court, 2013; Patrick Weller, Australia’s Mandarins: The Frank and the Fearless?, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001; Patrick Weller, From Postbox to Powerhouse: A Centenary History of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2011.


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