The issue of public service responsiveness to ministers has been described as a ‘hardy perennial’ of public service ethics. Too much responsiveness implies a public service that has become compliant to the point of subordinating its professional integrity to the political needs of ministers. Too little, implies a public service that ignores its duty to serve ministers in favour of pursuing its own interests.

It is a dilemma that is endemic to all representative democracies, as they grapple with the problems of grafting legitimate democratic control onto rule-based administrative agencies.1 But the dimensions of the dilemma have grown steadily more complex, as new principles of public management have been defined and asserted, the media have become more powerful and pervasive, and public expectations of the political process have become more exacting, even as trust in politicians has continued to decline.

As the professional body of Australian public servants (both state and federal), the Institute of Public Administration of Australia (IPAA) has taken the lead in discussing these matters. A roundtable in March 2008, organised by IPAA with the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, brought together academics, public servants (both senior and up-and-coming), ministerial advisers and former politicians to share insights and identify issues in an environment that was both supportive and challenging. The roundtable was sponsored by Minter Ellison, Ernst and Young, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

While the aim of the roundtable was not to produce formal recommendations for change, discussion groups produced a range of suggestions for reform in specific areas. These are reported under the ‘Recommendations’ section of this report. The initial sessions of 13-14 March proved so fruitful, that a follow-up was held on 14 May 2008. This report embodies the outcomes of both sessions.

About the author

Dr Jenny Stewart is Associate Professor in Public Policy at the University of Canberra, and a former policy adviser in the Australian Public Service. She has published widely in the fields of policy analysis, change management and public sector reform. Her most recent book (2003, with co-author Grant Jones) is Renegotiating the Environment: The power of politics, Federation Press.