Golden age for the Canberra public service

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

First published in The Australian, July 30, 2013

SAY what you will about Labor’s record on productivity, but no one can deny that the output of the public service has been rising steadily, if glossy reports are counted as desirable goods and not just slurry seeping from the corridors in Canberra.

The Department of Health and Ageing’s annual report tells the story. In the last year of the Howard government it was just 406 pages long; last year under Labor it was a hefty 560 pages, a 37 per cent increase in output in just five years.

Historians will look back on the Labor governments from 2007 as a golden era for Canberra public servants, and nowhere more so than in health, where bureaucracy has flourished under a government addicted to central planning. The simple souls who designed Federation would be amazed at the $636 million empire the federal health department has become. They thought the states could look after health services with a few odd jobs for the commonwealth, like regulating quarantine restrictions.

How could they have imagined the technological wizardry of the modern health service or the technocratic mission creep that that is a feature of almost every government agency?

Departmental officers have never been better remunerated. The average bureaucrat’s salary has increased by 30 per cent since Labor came to power – 13 per cent adjusted for inflation – to $77,000, making them around $320 a week better off than the average registered nurse, but not necessarily as helpful.

Turn up at the department’s new $200 million headquarters in Woden with a swollen toe or tickly cough and you will quickly be sent packing. No one on the staff attends to the sick, they simply attend, do whatever bureaucrats do, and collect the pay cheque.

Of every $100 the department spent in 2007, $73.70 went on wages. Last year the figure was $91.35, even though staff numbers have barely changed for at least 15 years.

In fact the department’s wage bill has jumped by a third in real terms since Labor came to power as more and more indians were promoted to chiefs. There have been 288 extra appointments at executive level, putting four out of 10 staff on six-figure salaries. The ranks of senior executives have almost doubled in the last 15 years, and more than half of new positions were created under Labor. Yet the iron law of expanding bureaucracies is that the larger they become, the more uncertain they are of their true public purpose. Fifty years ago it was clear what the department was there to do: maintain quarantine stations, administer medical benefits, tuberculosis allowances, give free milk to school children, run research laboratories and so forth.

Today its raison d’etre is hidden in a sludge of bureaucratese: the department values diversity, equality, integrity and inclusiveness, we are told in large capital letters at the start of its latest annual report. Its role is “to achieve the Australian government’s priorities (outcomes) for health and ageing,” a task it will achieve “by developing evidence-based policies”.

The department’s secretary, Jane Halton, assures us that 2011-2 was “a very busy year” (they always are in the language of departmental annual reports). There were “significant achievements and milestones across a wide range of areas.”

For instance? “A standout, internationally recognised achievement was the introduction of the world’s first plain packaging legislation for tobacco products,” claims Halton.

Internationally recognised? By whom? The British government had a look at it and concluded that the policy was not as “evidence based” as the professor might believe. There was no conclusive evidence that it has had any effect on smoking; it is pure conjecture.

To be fair, it must be a thankless task putting form and substance to ministerial thought bubbles, and the department has had more than its fair share under Labor.

It has found itself saddled with administering the National Health Reform Agreement, that’s the one that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said would require “no net increase in bureaucracy.”

There’s the Living Longer, Living Better aged care campaign, the After Hours GP Helpline, healthdirect Australia 24/7, the National Emergency Access Target, the National Elective Surgery Target, the Delivering National Mental Health Reform package, the Access to Allied Psychological Services program, Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records, and so on.

Most are well intentioned, some benefit the public. The duplication between federal and state governments is enormous, however. Poor spending in an area as emotive as health care is easy to announce, but next to impossible to withdraw, particularly in the current electric political environment.

Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton has floated the idea of scrapping the GP Super Clinics, a scheme administered from Canberra that has so far produced disappointing results. The barrage of abuse from Labor was considerable, but the opposition is right on the money.

There is clearly practical work for the department to do: aged care funding, the control of contagious diseases and pharmaceutical regulation for example.

When the busyness is stripped away, however, the unmistakable conclusion is that the department doubts its own public purpose. Its annual reports get longer, but it tells us less and less. Huge slabs are dedicated to process, an exercise in departmental navel gazing that proclaims petty bureaucratic triumphs. A staff survey is cited as evidence that the department is “building capability and motivating staff,” the Workplace Giving Program is on track, the department is assisting its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and has launched two e-learning modules to raise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness.

The Improving Wellness and Motivation in the Workplace Initiative and its Reconciliation Action Plan are offered as further evidence of a virtuous department that aspires to be “a contemporary best practice organisation” equipped “to respond to current and emerging health and ageing challenges.”

In conclusion, Halton looks ahead “to another busy and productive year”.

Let’s hope not.