Civil Service Reform – Reinvigorate, not Reinvent

by ukcivilservant

Here is an extract from a 2009 speech by Australian PM Kevin Rudd.  (Emphasis added)

Note the commitment to the strengths of the Australian Public Service, modelled on the Westminster Tradition, coupled with a determination to improve upon that model.

The full text is here.


The Government I lead came to office pledging to reinvigorate the Westminster tradition of a merit-based, independent public service committed to the highest-quality policy making.

We chose the word reinvigorate carefully.

We did not say “reinvent”, because the APS is a strong, professional public service that has served successive governments very well.

The professionalism of the public service has been evident since the first day after the 2007 election, when I received the first handover briefings from Dr Peter Shergold and other senior departmental secretaries.  The quality of that briefing, and the work of public servants to ensure a seamless transition to government in the following weeks and months, was testimony not only to the competence of the public service but to the value it placed on continuity.

And I note that my predecessor, Mr Howard, made the same point when delivering the Garran Oration in 1997, and I quote:

“That power can be transferred in this calm, understated way is a supreme asset.”

This is truly one of the most remarkable features of the Westminster tradition, and it is one we should not merely take it for granted.

Its success is in part the result of the sweeping reforms to the public service a century and a half ago, in another era and in another place – through the Northcote-Trevelyan report in Britain in 1854.  That report not only created the modern British civil service but laid the foundations of the ethos of the APS almost half a century later.

At the time, Britain was undergoing major economic changes in the wake of industrialisation.  The Empire was expanding, people were on the move and Europe was alive with revolutionary foment.  And the British civil service was riven with patronage, incompetence and corruption.

The recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report – a response to crisis in its time – helped create a civil service that was independent, impartial, recruited by competitive examination and promoted on merit.

In time, its impact stretched to the Australian colonies, where both Victoria and Queensland sought to limit political patronage by introducing competitive entry exams into their public services.  And it profoundly shaped the culture of the APS after its formation in 1901.

But Australia never simply copied the British model.

The APS never recreated the class structure in the way the British civil service did, with Sir Humphrey’s Oxbridge-educated administrator class unfailingly at the top.

Instead, some of Australia’s leading public servants have been the children of builders, boot makers, railway station masters and refugees, or they left school at 15 to be telegraph messengers and bank clerks.

What counted was not their modest beginnings but their fitness for the job.

Take Sir Roland Wilson, our longest serving Treasury Secretary and the son of a west coast Tasmanian builder.  Or another former Treasury chief, Sir Richard Randall, who worked for eight years as a wool classer.  Or another, Ted Evans, who worked for 10 years of his early life as a PMG linesman.  And given that his replacement, current Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, is the son of a New South Wales timber worker, it is clear that the APS principle of promoting merit over privilege is alive and well.

And there is a second lesson from history that particularly resonates today.

As I said before, the periods of most active public service reform have been periods of rapid change and even upheaval in the wider society, times when change has forced the public service to develop new structures and skills, and find talented new people.

In the 1940s, the all-out war effort, followed by the huge post-war nation-building program, created a generational change in the APS. For the first time there was an influx of brilliant outsiders to manage great wartime enterprises, to staff the departments of Treasury and Postwar Reconstruction and to establish the new foreign service.

At the time, the public service was a closed shop – the idea of outsiders joining was intensely controversial. So much so that when the economist, Roland Wilson – with doctorates from Oxford and Chicago – was recruited to the Bureau of Census and Statistics as the first government economics adviser in 1932, the staff of the Bureau went on strike!

The new public servants laid the foundations for decades of post-war prosperity and better living standards for Australians. They were among the first in the world to see and seize the opportunities of Keynesian economics and an active economic and social role for the post-war democratic state.

They managed the government’s commitment to full employment and the development of a modern social security system, to a large immigration program, to enormous infrastructure projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme, and to the beginnings of our national university system.

In other words, they were nation-builders – with their own professional public service tradition – with a sense that the words “prosper the Commonwealth” were etched deep in their intellect, their imagination and their sense of duty to the nation.


Martin Stanley

Editor  Understanding Government