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Friday, December 08, 2006

Ministers should start in the classroom says retiring Defense Secretary

Ric Smith, the Secretary of Defence is retiring after 38 years in the Commonwealth public service. His valedictory speech is an interesting reflection on changing times, including the rise and rise of demands for greater accountability. Valedictory address by Mr Ric Smith,
Here's a good suggestion taken from the speech:
"If we were looking for steps that could be taken to improve working relationships (between ministers and public servants) and the understanding of accountabilities, I would offer the suggestion that newly appointed Ministers, and possibly aspiring back-benchers, perhaps even together with newly appointed Secretaries or agency heads, might be given the opportunity to attend workshops or seminars on the respective roles and responsibilities of Ministers, Secretaries and other departmental officers under our Westminster-with-Canberra characteristics
system. This would include addressing their respective roles and responsibilities under the Public Service Act, the (Financial Management and Accountability) Act, the FOI act, and other relevant legislation. It would also embrace the less formal conventions that support the Ministerial-Public Service relationship. Lest this be thought to be an unduly radical suggestion, I should hasten to say that something like it now runs in the UK".
Its not just those in Canberra who should consider such a suggestion. I know from personal experience in NSW that ministers and departmental heads don't take up any formal opportunities to learn about such things as the FOI Act. Ministerial staffers are the same.

In my consulting work on FOI since 1988, I can only recall one occasion when I was asked to provide a briefing to a group of ministers and staffers. It was organised by Bruce Hawker, then Chief of Staff to Premier Bob Carr and was a year or so after the election that brought Labor to office in 1995. No ministers turned up and only a few staffers.

To my knowledge, the exercise was never repeated.

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