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Why public servants leak

By Tony Kevin - posted Thursday, 12 June 2008

All is not well between the Prime Minister and the men and women of the Commonwealth Public Service. There are considerable settling-in difficulties. This was evident in the recent Fuelwatch episode, where somebody in the public service - not a ministerial office - leaked the Cabinet documents on this issue.

Is the Prime Minister driving the public service too hard? Or does he in fact need to spill some senior public service heads left over from the Howard years, to send a clear disciplinary signal to public servants in response to this serious leak of Cabinet information?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. The Labor Government is certainly making public servants work harder. Many public service policy areas became comatose under Howard. There wasn't much interesting policy work going on, and it mostly got done in ministers' offices or in trusted highly politicised outposts.


Howard staffed key policy areas such as national security and counter-terrorism with his most trusted people, rotating them in and out of ministerial offices. The sidelining of Treasury on water policy was a typical example of the style.

Rudd says he wants the public service to get back to the traditions of efficiency and relevance that it had under Fraser, Hawke and Keating. He says he wants it to learn again how to work harder and smarter.

My impression, however, is that he and some of his ministers do not yet trust public servants to deliver - perhaps with good reason, in some cases. A lot of public service work is being done in a great hurry, then shelved without follow-up. The ministerial office minder system remains dominant.

This style risks becoming a self-fulfilling expectation. It can only demoralise public servants keen to make a new start under Labor, if they come to feel that their departments are suspected of not giving first-rate advice.

Are departments being given tight-deadline work to keep them busy and perhaps “road-test” their performance, while the most important policy thinking is still being done, as under Howard, in ministerial offices? I think so.

Rudd, a former public servant himself, still seems undecided how much trust to put in the public service. That is what makes the recent Fuelwatch issue instructive, out of all proportion to its inherent minor policy significance. Cabinet was entitled to take the course of action it took. But perhaps it was a final goad to someone in a public service that feels overworked and under-appreciated, thus leading to the leak.


What to do about such leaks? Perhaps a bit of ceremonial head-lopping at the top, pour encourager les autres?

In Crikey last week Stephen Bartos suggested (subscription required) five possible reasons for public service leaks: accident, individual ideological meltdown, to expose corruption or malfeasance at the top, to expose a government's policy misdirection or misinformation, or to give ammunition to the Opposition. Of these five, only the third is seen as acceptable by public service professionals.

I don't think any of the departmental heads left in place after Howard's departure would be so unprofessional as to leak material to the media or Opposition. For officers who have reached this top level, the ethic of serving the government of the day loyally and efficiently has become instinctive. On this view, the proper course for a public servant with serious policy objections to what his government is doing against his advice is to quietly resign or seek transfer - never to leak information or blow the whistle.

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First published in Eureka Street on June 5, 2008.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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