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Real challenge is public service

By Jenny Stewart - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Barry O’Farrell has waited patiently to become Premier of New South Wales. Now that he finally has the job, he must figure out ways of implementing change on a number of fronts. While NSW is far from being a basket case, neither is it in good shape. Business has not been investing as much as might be expected in what should be (the mining states notwithstanding) the most dynamic economy in the nation.

The problems – or at least the visible symptoms of some of them – are well-known. The city of Sydney needs better public transport, and so does the State as a whole.  After years of politicisation under Labor, the public service is crying out for more independent leadership. The State’s finances have been distorted by Labor’s inability to control wages and salaries, by the botched electricity privatisation, and by the financial straitjacket in which Australia’s dysfunctional federation places all state governments.

Barry himself brings some useful qualities to tackling these problems. While he has never been a Minister, he has done the rounds of the shadow ministerial portfolios (including Treasury), and as Leader of the Opposition took care to present himself as a common sense figure, one not given to over-promising (although of course, with Labor in free-fall, he did not need to promise anything to be elected). He is not in the thrall of the power brokers and faction leaders who destroyed successive Labor premiers, and he does not need to defer to the unions. He will certainly carry to the federal government the fight for a better GST deal for New South Wales.


The most important challenge, however, has to do with rebuilding the government’s most critical infrastructure – the public service. Politicised from the top, subject to random re-structurings and cuts, and (especially in the crucial middle levels) somewhat demoralised, it is a tribute to the professionalism of the majority of public servants that services are delivered as well as they are. 

The reality is that Australian state governments in the twenty-first century must operate effectively on many levels. They must not only manage themselves, they must also manage up – to the Commonwealth and sideways to local government. Working effectively with the Council of Australian Governments requires good policy people to shape the terrain in the interests of the State. But the story does not end there – indeed the real trick in State administration is to find political leaders who can communicate both their difficulties and their achievements, while creating structures and cultures that support energy and accountability at every level.

If Barry can lead his government as a team, he will have made a good start. Good ministers and an efficient Cabinet system are essential. Training the journalists to look beyond the Premier for policy feeds will take some of the ludicrous 24/7 media pressure off both them – and him. Barry has some reasonable ministerial talent to draw on. But in modern government, Ministers must form effective partnerships with reliable and experienced public servants.

Competent leadership of the Premier’s department (and of the main portfolios) is crucial.  In modern public management, these positions are difficult to fill well, because of the never-ending tensions between the political requirements of ministerial advisers, and the need for seasoned professionals to be allowed to get on with the job.  Politicising the public service provides short-term obedience at the expense of professionalism. As Gerry Gleeson, Neville Wran’s powerful departmental head, put it in his 2010 Spann oration, the NSW public service had lost ‘its coherence, its stability its strength of purpose and … its capacity to be a genuine source of frank and fearless advice.’ Gleeson called for the re-establishment of a New South Wales Public Service Commission as a way of returning some structure, respectability and spine to the public service.

Barry does not have to go this far, but he does need to send some clear signals about how he wants to work. Public management is far from being an exact science. But some general lessons seem clear.  Preferment must always depend upon merit, not political allegiances. While Premiers must be leaders, in complex policy areas they have to recognise that they cannot achieve much on their own. Ensuring that Ministers (and in turn, those working to them) know what they are expected to achieve, and have the power they need to get the job done, seems to be the best recipe for success.

There is a tendency to believe that big problems require big solutions – transport tsars, infrastructure gurus. Undoubtedly, some of this apparatus is needed for symbolic purposes. But the main job in modern governance is for agencies to work together (and where appropriate, with business and the not-for-profit sector) to achieve results. As Premier, Barry should set the tone. Bureaucrats who drag their feet and discover a thousand impediments to cooperation, simply because it threatens their own interests, need to get the message that this sort of behaviour has no future.


The challenge of working together is apparent in every policy field, but is particularly evident in regional development. Regional issues are notoriously interconnected. A department that dispenses a few incentives for businesses to move west – or north, or south – is not in the race. NSW needs to take the pressure off Sydney and to do so, will need to work with local government to take the sort of actions – many of them mid-level or even micro-level – that might actually make a difference.

Some actions will require a bit of vision – not blinding revelation, just a bit of forward-thinking common sense. The Australian economy needs more balance. We need industries to develop in the eastern states, and the infrastructure to support them. Surely it is time for the long-discussed high-speed rail link between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne to start to become a reality. For the ACT and the capital region in south-eastern New South Wales, there can be few issues more important than this.

With any luck, Barry O’Farrell will be Premier for several terms. Even so, he may not see the fruits of this kind of sensible planning while he is in office. Worthwhile change, whether it is big or small, takes time to work through, and good people to see it through. If Barry O’Farrell can re-train the media pack to understand this, and move forward with care and vision, he could become one of the great Premiers of New South Wales.

Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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About the Author

Dr Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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