Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Public Administration and the AWB - A few more background points

Department Head responses to a question on the objectives of their Departments, 1970's Royal Commission into the Public Service

I have not previously encountered the suggestion of objectives for a department of state. The Royal Commission will presumably not need anything more from the department than a copy of the administrative arrangements. Sir Lennox Hewitt

The function of the Treasury is to advise and assist the Treasurer in the discharge of his responsibilities. The objectives of the Treasury are, in essence, to carry out this function as effectively and efficiently as possible. Sir Frederick Wheeler

I do hate not understanding how things work in areas where I have an interest. Conversely, one of the fun things about this blog is that it requires me to find out so that I can write about them.

As I browsed the Cole Report I realised that I was not sure just how some of the official bits now fitted together. I was also puzzled by the apparent absence of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (the old Department of Primary Industry) from the scene since I would have expected it to have had a major direct interest.

I therefore decided that I should start by looking first at Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. However, I need to make a few more background points first,

First, I have included the quotes at the top of the page as an introduction because they set something of a context for some of the differences between the traditional system of public administration and that holding today that I will be referring too.

You might also if interested care to browse Confessions of a Policy Adviser - 3: Administrative Trainee 1 since this provides a snapshot of the Service at the time I joined.

Secondly, agency structures change regularly as do people. To be absolutely accurate I should trace all these changes, but this is a huge task. My feeling is that we can use current structures as a base unless there is a reason to look further. No doubt someone will point any errors out.

Thirdly, I should provide some constitutional information for the benefit especially of people outside Australia since this sets the context within which the discussion takes place. In this context:

  • Australia is a constitutional monarchy sharing a monarch with the UK, Canada and New Zealand as well as a number of other states. Our constitution provides for the appointment of a Governor General to represent the Queen in Australia. In the Queen's absence from Australia, the Governor General acts as head of state.
  • While there were some US influences on our founding fathers and especially on some of the wording used in the drafting of the constitution, Australia operates within the Westminster system. This is very important because it has profound if sometimes subtle and unseen influences that distinguish our system of Government at both state and federal level from those found in presidential systems such as the United States.
  • The defeat of the Royalists during the English Civil War established the primacy of Parliament within the Westminster system. This was carried through in the Australian constitution granting Parliament sole legislative power, although the Monarch or the Governor General on her behalf retains certain reserve powers. Because our system evolved over time, many key operational elements are not formally defined in a constitutional sense and are guided by tradition and culture.
  • The Prime Minister is appointed by and can be dismissed by the Governor General and holds office only so long as he/she can control a majority in the House of Representatives as the people's house. Ministers are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.
  • Each minister is given a portfolio, a bundle of areas of responsibilities formally defined in the administrative arrangements. Each portfolio contains one or more departments of state (these are called ministries in other countries such as the UK or New Zealand) along with a range of other agency types that have become more varied and complex in recent years as a consequence of the revolution in public administration. The arrangements also specify the legislation administered by each portfolio.
  • The administrative arrangements system allows Governments to continually revise responsibilities to meet changing needs, especially political needs, creating flexibility but also a degree of institutional variability almost incomprehensible to those outside the system including those in the private sector. This creates major problems for, and sometimes perverse results from, the application of planning and management techniques drawn from private sector models.
  • Finally, the rise of executive power and the evolution of more presidential style Prime Ministers has created sometimes unseen tensions inside the Australian Westminster system.

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