When the Minister and CEO part company on what is desired, usually the minister will succeed – electoral success often depends on giving the people what they want
TUMBY BAY - When things don’t work in government we tend to blame politicians. Believe it or not, sometimes they’re not the ones at fault.
I’ve been writing a book about the chequered history of the government’s Aboriginal Heritage Branch in South Australia.
Along the way I’ve looked at decision making processes and the chains of command within government departments.
At the bottom of the chain are the workers at the coal face. Above them are supervisors, then middle managers who answer to senior executives and the chief executive officer.
The chief executive officer deals with the minister responsible for the department.
This arrangement, which is typical of most government departments, has many steps through which an issue passes and is examined and negotiated on its way up (and down) the line.
The guys and gals at the coal face are the people who deal with problems and talk to clients and the public face to face.
The middle managers act as a kind of filter. They decide how workers will operate in terms of policy and finance determined at a more senior level.
They also relay information up the line from the workers about how they are carrying out the department’s activities.
The senior executives determine policy and financial issues and also need to consider the implications of these for the public.
This is where politics comes face to face the work of the department.
The chief executive officer, who these days is usually appointed by the current government on contract, considers issues at the interface of politics and practicalities.
The CEO receives policies and decisions from the elected minister and interprets these into practical action. The CEO also advises the minister on what may or may not be possible but, at the end of the day, is obliged to carry out what the minister decides.
This is because the minister is an elected member of an elected government – both ultimately accountable to the people.
So you can see that departmental CEOs are in a position where they are balancing politics with what they believe is practical to do.
This can give CEOs considerable power in their relationship with ministers.
Ministers are accountable for their departments to the first minister (sometimes called a prime minister or premier in different jurisdictions) and they need to operate through the CEOs to make sure their departments carry out government policy and decisions.
The critical relationship here is between the minister and the CEO – the elected official and the appointed official; the minister accountable to the people, the CEO accountable to the minister.
Sometimes, what the CEO considers is best practice, the minister will consider to be politically difficult.
For example, the CEO of a health department will understand that specialised medical services require fewer hospitals that are well resourced rather than more hospitals not so well resourced.
However the minister will know that the public, not understanding much about how medical services operate, wants to see more hospitals.
The political pressure is for more hospitals; the practicalities are for better hospitals.
This is where the minister and the CEO can part company on what is desired. Usually, the minister will succeed – electoral success often depends on giving the people what they want – but not always.
This is because between the minister’s decision and its practical application there are many twists and turns. And the decision passes through many people.
The CEO, senior executives, middle managers, supervisors and those important people who deliver at the coal face.
When the minister’s decision filters down to the people at the coal face, there are many opportunities for people to be happy, disappointed and even mystified.
And there are many opportunities for wheels to come off.
So the process of implementing decisions I’ve described is complex. There are many elements that feed into the mix as an issue journeys up and down the chain of command.
A pertinent element is the personal beliefs of the people at the various levels through which the issue passes.
The public service in most countries is conservative. It doesn’t like radical ideas. It likes stability and predictability.
Its status quo is formed from a range of personal and moral biases – and not all of these are what we would consider acceptable.
In the Aboriginal Heritage Branch, which I’m writing about, strange as it may seem the biggest problem was racism.
The Indigenous people in whose name the Branch operated were not always considered to be the kind of client desired.
Just the mention of a sacred site would bring the cynics in the Branch out of the woodwork.
And if you think that corruption exists mainly among politicians, it should be noted that it can permeate all levels of the decision-making process, including the coal face.
The result of all this is that the ultimate decision maker, the minister / politician, often ends up making decisions based on tainted advice or decisions that are not carried out as they should be down the chain.
I suppose the only consolation for public servants is that, at the end of the day, the politician cops most of the blame.