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Monday, October 11, 2010

The retiring Mr Mathews speaks up for speaking up

On the other hand in his valedictory speech last week, long time Commonwealth public servant Ken Mathews expressed pride in the Australian model of public administration, suggesting Ozminster rather than Westminster as the more apt description, and in the Australian Public Service "as a great, continuing national institution."

Mathews canvassed four issues that deserve thought by ministers and public service leaders and raised a more fundamental question: whether the public service is becoming a “docile and unassertive service” that  needs a better point of balance between accountability to ministers, and responsibility more broadly to speak truth to power in putting big picture national strategic views to ministers, by not throwing in the towel when advice once given is rejected, in dealings with Ministerial staffers, in showing a bit of spine under questioning in Senate Estimates hearings, in speaking up for the public service itself. And in participating in media and academic debate:

When we hear garbage or inaccuracies on current affairs radio over breakfast shouldn’t we be getting the facts out there? I also think we have a responsibility to be more active on the conference circuit, including alongside academics. Yes, we need to be mindful of the public profiles of our ministers, and yes we need to avoid partisan issues, but there is a lot our great APS institution can say that can be constructive and will advance the public debate. We do have a choice: we can sit back and complain about the standard of public policy debate or we can do something ourselves to improve it. To clarify what’s legitimate in public comment perhaps we need a ‘new deal’ with our ministerial executive, parliamentary committees and accountability bodies such as the ANAO... Our top executives have a special role in the public debate.
Spot on there, just like the important contribution made to public debate through release of Red Book and other pieces of policy analysis.

Oh and all public servants are welcome anytime to express a view about open government issues canvassed here. From memory I can't recall a comment from any prepared to provide a name, although I expect Anonymous, our No.1 contributor, has many incarnations, including more than a few as otherwise proud and confident public servants.

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