The public service


public service

Centrelink, which provides welfare, is an important part of the public service

Australia has dozens of different government departments and agencies that provide services to the government and the Australian people. Collectively, they are known as the public service, the civil service, the public sector or the bureaucracy. Commonwealth, State and Territorial jurisdictions each have their own public service, consisting of departments, agencies and statutory authorities. Most public sector departments are overseen by one or more government ministers – for example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is overseen by the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Federal Minister for Trade. An important distinction between the government and the public service, however, is that members of the public service are employed, not elected. If the government changes, the public service does not automatically change.


The public service has four main roles. First, it delivers essential and necessary services to the Australian people, such as the organisation, funding and provision of healthcare, education and welfare. Second, the public service carries out the important administrative functions of government, such as collecting taxation revenue (the Australian Taxation Office), overseeing and coordinating trade (the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and protecting our borders (the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service). Third, the public service implements laws and policies made by parliament; it is the means by which government decisions are carried out ‘on the ground’. Fourth and last, the public service provides the government and others with information and advice that is useful for formulating new laws and policies.

public service

The public service is the largest employer in Australia

As mentioned above, the Commonwealth government is served by its own public service while the States have their own public service. In Australia the “public service” only refers to those employed under the Public Service and State Service Acts of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. The public service is the largest employer in Australia. While the media often focuses on the Australian Public Service, State and Territory public services are much larger, accounting for almost 65 percent of those working in the public sector, compared with around 10 per cent in the Australian Public Service. The largest employers in the public sector are schools and hospitals.

According to Stanley (2000), a public servant has three distinct duties: to provide frank and fearless advice to ministers; to help ministers to promote, explain and defend government policy; and to implement government policy:


Ministerial advice. The first duty of a public servant is to give frank and fearless advice that will help ministers make good decisions about law and policy reform. The advice should be honest, comprehensive, informed, accurate and timely, even if it is politically inconvenient. As far as is possible, within time and resource constraints, advice should be based on a full understanding of all relevant issues and options, the government’s objectives and the environment in which it operates. This advice may be ideas for new laws, policies and programs, or a fair critique of existing or proposed laws and policies.

Promoting policy. The second duty of a public servant is to help ministers and the government promote, explain and defend their decisions, whether or not the public servant supports or agrees with it. For a public servant this can range from preparing speeches for ministers, developing media campaigns and media lines for the minister, speaking at public events, preparing responses to correspondence to the minister, and explaining the detailed policy provisions to clients and customers wishing to receive a government service. In all of these tasks, it should not matter whether a public servant thinks the minister is right or wrong or that the policy is good or bad. Senior public servants are sometimes required to publicly explain government policy, for example at Senate Estimates hearings.

Implementing policy. The third duty of a public servant is implementation. Once a minister or the government makes a decision, public servants are called on to get it working ‘on the ground’. This begins with the drafting of necessary legislation and ends with the delivery of services. The vast majority of the public service are involved with implementing policy and delivering services. Middle and lower ranking public servants are hardly ever asked to provide policy advice to ministers; that is the role of senior bureaucrats. For many public servants, the only role they have in explaining government policy is limited to explaining the detailed and technical provisions of a program to ordinary Australians.

When an election is called, the duties of public servants are restricted under the caretaker conventions of Westminster government. During the caretaker period, the public service ceases to implement change or provide advice or information about proposed changes. The public service will no longer provide the government with advice and analysis on new policy or law reform options. Similarly, while the public service continues to explain existing policies to its clients, it will not promote policies or assist ministers to defend government policies. During the caretaker period the public sector continues to implement existing policy and deliver services, however to a large extent it ‘disconnects’ from government ministers.

Public sector reform

Two important forces have shaped the public service in Australia. The first is the evolution of the public service in Britain. Modern Westminster attitudes to the bureaucracy can be traced back to the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the British civil service (1853).  From this report emerged an ideal that the public service should be professional, merit-based and politically neutral. A second important factor has been the almost relentless waves of public sector reform since the mid 1970s. These reforms have been driven by four broad, though sometimes contradictory objectives: efficiency; openness and transparency; internal equity and welfare; and responsiveness to government. Different governments have different attitudes to the public service, so changes in government have often brought sweeping changes to the public sector.

public service

The ‘lazy public servant’ is a popular but overdone stereotype

Over the past 25 to 30 years there have been many reforms to the public sector, across the Commonwealth, States and Territories. Perhaps the most obvious type of public sector reform is driven by efficiency. As Australia’s largest employer, the public service is often accused of inefficiency and wastefulness. Governments like to focus on this, particularly during the election cycle, while the media also likes to highlight examples of overspending or waste within the public sector. Governments and aspiring governments are fond of promising savings by making the public service more productive, limiting resources, ending waste or even cutting back or abolishing government departments. Public sector cuts are controversial. Not only do they force many into unemployment, they can also lead to a deterioration in service delivery. The election of Tony Abbott and the Coalition government in September 2013 has led to waves of public sector cuts.

Another public service reform of recent times has been a gradual shift towards more open and transparent government. The operation of government and the public service has become more visible and accountable to the Australian people. Some of the processes and features that have led to this include the introduction of Senate estimates hearings, freedom of information legislation, administrative appeals tribunals and other mechanisms, the creation of Commonwealth and State Ombudsmen, a greater focus on monitoring and evaluating government services, and the use of public service  charters. In the early and mid 20th century the operation and decisions of the public service were often shrouded in mystery. With these reforms of the last 20-30 years, it is now possible to question, scrutinise and challenge the actions and decisions of the public service.

Other reforms to the public sector have changed the way it operates internally. Working conditions within the public service have changed significantly. Equal opportunity provisions have been introduced that minimise selective and discriminatory workplace practices. There has been a focus on providing safe and healthy workplaces, family-friendly workplaces and workplace diversity, such as provisions for nursing mothers, disabled workers and employees from different cultural or religious backgrounds.


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