Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Essay - reflections on the sacking of Carol Mills

The sacking Tuesday of the Department of Parliamentary Services' secretary Carol Mills brings an extraordinary saga to an end. You will get a feel for it from this Canberra Times piece by Noel Towel: Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Carol Mills sacked. It has all the elements of a political and bureaucratic soap opera played out against a backdrop set in part by Ms Mills possible appointment as clerk of Britain's House of Commons.

This earlier piece by emeritus professor Richard Mulgan looks at some of the managerial aspects. I quote in part:
Parliaments worldwide are experiencing tensions between, on the one hand, the clerks and their professional staff, who are imbued with the values of parliament itself, and, on the other hand, the managers who have been brought in to impose greater efficiency and effectiveness on what have become large and often unwieldy organisations. As in many other similar institutions that have been subjected to managerial reforms – such as hospitals, universities, museums and law courts – the professionals resent the managers, who have little feel for the overriding mission, while the managers despise the professionals, who cannot appreciate value for money. 
The conflict is inevitable and cannot be resolved, only managed with mutual understanding and goodwill. Again, the premium is on good interpersonal relations and trust. When these break down, as they appear to have done on Capital Hill, everyone loses.
There are three main departments in the Commonwealth Parliamentary system. Two serve the House of Representatives and the Senate, the third (Carol Mills' department) looks after all the things required to keep the Australian Parliament functioning as a whole.

All three were very small, but the responsibilities of the Department of Parliamentary Services in particular have exploded over recent decades. It's not that the number of members of parliament has grown, just that the total institutional size (buildings, services, security etc) has grown very rapidly. The number of security personnel alone would now exceed the total staff of all departments in 1980. It's become big business.

From an operational viewpoint, the efficiency of the Department of Parliamentary Services is paramount. From a constitutional and political viewpoint, it is the departments servicing the two houses that are really important. You only have to look at the role played by Harry Evans as Clerk of the Senate to see this.

The action of the current Clerk of the Senate, Dr Rosemary Laing, in emailing retiring House of Commons Commons Clerk Sir Robert Rogers trying to derail Carol Mills' appointment was extraordinary, her language more so. But they also  revealed the breakdown in trust and communications that had occurred. Initially, Dr Laing was reprimanded. But by the end, Carol Mills had senators of all persuasions effectively baying for her blood.

My first reaction in reflecting on all this was that the Department of Parliamentary Services should be taken out of the remit of Parliament and made an ordinary department of state. Then I thought that this would just give the Executive more power. Perhaps the answer lies in just taking out certain of the facilities management functions, allowing the Parliamentary departments to focus on their key roles.

Whatever the answer, we need the Parliamentary departments to be imbued, as Professor Mulgan says, with the values of Parliament itself.  


Anonymous said...

Am uneasy with Prof. Mulgan's overview:

the professionals resent the managers, who have little feel for the overriding mission, while the managers despise the professionals, who cannot appreciate value for money

This diminishes the contributions of both 'classes', and it reeks of his personal approach to those who 'enable' his own contributions to society.

Ms Mills deserved.. something.. for the photography decision, but the rest seems to be same old, same old, internicene warfare. Dr Laing exceeded her remit, or the person who leaked her email certainly did. Whatever, positional jealousy occurs in every workplace, and is always unseemly when exposed to the light.

Anyway, I would not want him as a dinner guest, if lazy opinions such as that were his main contribution.


Jim Belshaw said...

I broadly accept your point on Prof Mulgan, kvd. But I think that he is raising an important issue.

I would gladly trade off many degrees of inefficiency for a primary mission focused on a key issue that I regard as centrally important.