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How political decisions often don't work

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.


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Paul Oates

That's the way it used to be, Chips. For some reason the name of Sir Arthur Tange comes to mind.

Anyone who worked in Defence some 50 years ago would undoubtedly remember him well.

The issue of politicising the public service of any nation is a hot topic and will probably never be resolved in polite circles.

The obvious appeal of the political methodology in directly appointing senior public servants is nothing new.

Just look at what happened to Thomas Becket when his mate King Henry (II) having appointed him to the then top PS equivalent, then found his mate Tom wanted to become prone to making decisions himself? Poor ol' Tom didn't last long. No one of course knew who dunnit........but everyone came to know who ordered it.

So there's nothing new under the sun as far as humans are concerned. The real issue is that most people just don't want to take an interest in what is happening in government until it starts to personally hurt themselves and then they look around for someone, anyone really, to blame. But by then, it's far too late.

Em tasol. Tok save bilo mi ipinis nau. Go kukim sampla kaukau na kisim brus bilo mi ikam.

Chris Overland

I think that Phil has correctly described some of the many elements that influence decision making in the operations of a government department.

He perhaps could have made stronger reference to the impact of party apparatchiks and the now ubiquitous Ministerial Advisers. These people are, in their turn, influenced by other players, whether from within the public service or outside of it.

The Sir Humprey Appelby type figures referenced by Chips are now essentially a relic of history, mostly because of the way Departmental CEOs are now employed.

Being no longer protected by the shield of 'permanency', they cannot operate with the impunity that once allowed very powerful and influential public servants like H.C. 'Nugget' Coombs or Sir Lenox Hewitt OBE to dominate policy development.

Still, there are a few bureaucratic positions that carry a lot of weight, such as the Federal Under Treasurer, the Governor of the Reserve Bank or the Secretary of Defence.

The incumbents in these positions tend to be people with very serious relevant credentials, experience and credibility. It is, frankly, dangerous to appoint ideologues to such positions and most governments are wise enough to understand this.

Phil might also have drawn attention to the power of the judiciary. Examples of this include the Mabo and Wik decisions of the High Court which have utterly changed the policy environment in indigenous affairs and, more recently, the Federal Court's scathing assessment of the previous Federal government's immoral, unethical and illegal Robo-debt policy.

So, within any working democracy, the decision-making process is frequently accompanied by a lot of disputation and even uproar. Some of this is contained within the bureaucracy and some is conducted within the broader public domain.

Generally speaking, the more contentious and difficult the decision the more likely it is that the political class will be hesitant to simply impose a decision based upon party ideology or orthodoxy. The electoral track record of governments operating in this manner is dismal.

The Howard government's ill fate Work Choices legislation is a case in point, as is the Liz Truss led British government's recent epic policy fail in trying to impose a manifestly ideological but hopeless budget package. Both of these examples will be burnt into the memory of the political class as classic examples of what not to do.

Curiously, the US Republican Party seems to have forgotten this great political truth as demonstrated by its rabid anti-abortion stance and open hostility towards gay and lesbian people, as well as accompanying attempts to disenfranchise any people whom it thinks might vote for their Democrat opponents.

A prominent US commentator, Michael Moore, has gone against the prevailing orthodoxy and predicted that the Republicans will suffer serious electoral damage from this behaviour. I sincerely hope that he is right.

Thus, in a democracy at least, the search for some sort of consensus is always the preferred way to make political decisions. It may be a long and painful process, but the likelihood of a successful outcome and broad public support is much greater this way.

Chips Mackellar

Well chronicled Phil, but you didn't mention the Sir Humphrey Appleby type of CEO who always manages to run the Department his own way, irrespective of what policy the Minister wants implemented.

In this way, nothing changes. This is the traditional role of the public service - to continue to run the country in the same way irrespective of who won the last election.

This is what is known as stable government.

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