The Role of PM&C in Government
Dr Ian Watt AO,
Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
10:30am Thursday 19 July 2012
1 National Circuit, Barton, Canberra
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and their ancestors.
This is my second address to the APS in Canberra since becoming head of PM&C and the APS, and I am pleased to see so many people from across agencies and levels here.
In particular, I welcome you to the Andrew Fisher building, and I do that partly because it was Fisher who founded PM&C and first set down its role.
And it is the role of PM&C in the Australian Government, the way in which we carry out that role, and the way PM&C works together with the rest of government that I want to discuss today.
So why talk about the role of PM&C? Three, related, reasons.
First, new Secretaries should, and often do, publicly set down markers as to the role of their organisations and how the organisations should operate.
That is part of putting your stamp on an organisation, and helping to shape the environment in which it operates.
As a still relatively new Secretary of PM&C, it is time for me to articulate how I see our role and how we should fulfil it.
Second, as head of the APS, I have a very strong interest in not just how PM&C works with the rest of the APS, but also how the APS works with PM&C to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the APS as a whole.
However, there is a third reason for doing so, and it came out of our recently completed Capability Review. As some of you may be aware, the Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration recommended that each Department undertake a Capability Review. They are short, sharp reviews which focus on an agency’s leadership, strategy and delivery capacity. Three trial reviews have been undertaken to date, and I considered it appropriate that PM&C lead by conducting the first formal review.
The Review noted that:
- The PM&C Executive had a clear model of collaboration in the way it worked, which is different from some past, more competitive models, including when I was first in PM&C. However, the reviewers felt that we need to be more explicit in communicating our vision for PM&C to both our own officers and the broader APS; and
- This was particularly the case in regard to how we intend to work with the rest of the APS.
Today’s speech is very much part of that communication process.
1) Role of PM&C in Government
The role of PM&C is summed up in our 2010-11 Annual Report, which broadly stated:
‘Our primary role is to provide high-quality policy advice and support to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government. The Department also seeks to drive innovative, strategic and coordinated policy solutions to Australia’s national challenges while supporting the implementation of the Government’s strategic priorities.’
Our Capability Review concluded that our role in supporting the Head of Government has been a constant for us over the last 101 years.
While this is correct, what has changed a lot is the sort of support we provide, the range of functions and issues we should get involved in, the way we go about undertaking our role, and the way we interact with the rest of the APS.
The support role goes back to Fisher, who wrote that:
'I am of the opinion that the work of the Prime Minister’s Office needs a department directly under his control.'
And, ever since, PM&C has played a key role in delivering high quality advice and support to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the government, and in coordinating government business.
From the beginning, PM&C has had unique responsibilities.
It was not responsible for one set of portfolio issues, but rather it assisted Prime Ministers across the entire sweep of government activity.
Unsurprisingly, that role took time to be accepted. While it is unlikely that anyone would question it today, the form that assistance takes is sometimes a source of concern to other agencies.
Our role has solidified over time. In June 1955 Prime Minister Menzies wrote a memorandum that said:
'The particular thing I now wish to see is the Department’s activities consolidated and developed as an independent source of advice to the Prime Minister on policy matters and as an agency of interdepartmental-cooperation.'
He went on to say,
'Government administration and activities are nowadays so complex that a Prime Minister can carry out this duty effectively only if he has available the right sort of assistance.'1
Since then, PM&C has matured and evolved as the realm of public policy has indeed become more demanding and complex.
It has always had strong and permanent core functions, with other functions coming and going according to the priorities of the Prime Minister and Government of the day.
Sometimes less permanent priorities become part of the departmental structure – the changes with the arrival and departure of Arts and Sport (DRALGAS), and the Office for Water (SEWPAC), are examples. Sometimes they are attached more temporarily with the creation of specific and time limited bodies – under the general tag of a ‘Taskforce’.
PM&C’s annual reports document the comings and goings of taskforces and other units, and remind of us what matters at particular times to the Prime Minister.
In years to come, students of history will see that global finance (G20 Taskforce), our engagement with Asia, (Australia in the Asian Century Taskforce) and the asylum seeker policy (IMAs taskforce), were some of the burning issues of 2012.
Two decades after Menzies, Sir Geoffrey Yeend, who was Secretary of PM&C from 1978 to 1986, wrote in PM&C’s first Annual Report in 1978-79:
'The basic functions (of PM&C) do not change; nor does the basic character of the Department, and the intense pressure in working in the forefront of government activity continues.'
By then the Menzies mandate was well implemented. And today, just like Sir Geoffrey Yeend and those staff before and after him, PM&C still gives advice and support to the Prime Minister on the full range of issues. We do it by drawing on our expertise and, more importantly, on the expertise from the departments and agencies of the APS to help form a whole-of-government view.
Several things follow from PM&C’s role in advising and supporting the Prime Minister:
- Our role is unique. There are important Ministers and portfolios with necessarily wide-ranging responsibilities (although usually with specialised remits). There is, however, only one Prime Minister.
- As the Prime Minister plays the leadership role in Cabinet, so PM&C plays a leadership role in government, and I play a leadership role in the APS. As I said last time we met, I want the APS to be government’s first choice for policy advice, program management and service delivery. That means that, across the APS, we have to be prepared to test ideas and encourage critical thinking to address a problem. We in PMC have a role to play in modelling just that behaviour. Importantly, that does not mean that PM&C will lead on all, most or even many specific issues. More often, we should be a participant supporting others, including making the right connections happen across government and in ensuring that a good range of alternatives is explored before the preferred option is selected.
- Finally, the particular role of supporting a Head of Government translates into a leading role in supporting domestic and international Head of Government issues, such as COAG and the G20.
Two further points follow.
First, while we have many things in common (such as the requirement to help agencies with broader issues, to ensure we add value and to genuinely work with agencies to explore ideas), our role is different from the other central agencies, and it should be different, and we should operate accordingly.
PM&C should focus on what matters most to the Prime Minister now and what will matter to the Prime Minister in future, and support progress on those policy priorities across government.
We also help the processes of government to run smoothly.
In particular, we support good Cabinet processes and we use our knowledge to appropriately support the rest of the APS in Cabinet matters. We help to coordinate the Government’s legislative program.
We should also take the broader view, and help departments and agencies develop proposals that take account of issues beyond their portfolio.
We also have a role in monitoring overall policy implementation – something that matters increasingly to governments – and we are involved in some high priority policy implementation.
Second, in Australia and in other Westminster systems, central policy coordination agencies, like PM&C, have always had a different staffing profile from departments that are often life-time careers, like perhaps Defence.
There are people with particular skills and interests who spend most or even all of their careers in PM&C, and we all depend on those people enormously for their corporate memory and their specialised knowledge.
Even so, it is more common for PM&C staff to spend a period, or several periods, of time here during an APS career, and to work elsewhere in between.
Just as in the UK Cabinet Office, the Canadian Privy Council Office or DPMC in New Zealand, good people come to PM&C to learn how things work across government, to sharpen their policy coordination skills, to build networks, and to get a better understanding of what really drives governments. They then take those skills back to line agencies, to enhance APS performance as a whole.
Learning about the heart of government while working at PM&C is something that I did, the APS Commissioner did, that many of you here today have already done, or will do.
Time spent at PM&C should be part of the career path of many in the APS, and we will be looking to enhance our traditional role in developing high potential APS officers in the near future. For my part, I think it is a decided advantage for senior members of the SES to have spent time in PM&C, given the rich opportunity to work and learn at the centre of government.
Some of that insight comes from learning about the way PM&C focuses its activities; some of it comes from observing policy delivery and implementation problems, both across the APS and at close hand.
We learn from success – but we also learn from failure; and, sitting in the centre of government, we sometimes have more opportunity to observe such things unfold than most of those sitting in line agencies.
2) Carrying out our role: Focussing our activities
Fulfilling our role well means directing our energies carefully.
Almost 35 years ago, our first Annual Report explained:
'The wide range of the Department’s activities across the whole span of government activity… mean that there is a need to be selective in the Department’s involvement in policy and administrative issues, and sensitive in the manner and degree of its involvement'.
At a time when everyone’s resources are limited, there will be more reason than ever for PM&C to be selective and sensitive about our activities. That is what the rest of the APS can expect when you deal with us. This is a message that I have already given to PM&C staff, and one I will be repeating.
This also came through in our recent Capability Review. The Review emphasised the importance of developing our skills in what it called the ‘PM&C Craft’.
This sounds like some kind of secret society – in reality, it is much more nuts and bolts – because it is PM&C’s traditional way of working across Government.
The ‘PM&C Craft’ is fundamentally about two things: knowing what matters, and working on the things that matter with the right combination of people and skills from across government.
The reviewers felt we had lost a little of that ‘craft’ in recent years. We will be addressing that in our response to the Review.
As I have said, PM&C has never had the time or the resources to get involved in everything going on in government.
We will get involved when an issue really matters to the Prime Minister in their role as Head of Government.
We will also get involved when an important issue affecting multiple departments needs central coordination to achieve a good outcome, or when the issue is about to come to Cabinet.
And by the way, we will usually move on after the issue has gone to Cabinet, apart from our light implementation monitoring role, unless there is a good reason not to.
Again, we will not lead on every important issue – instead, our role will be to help the rest of the APS lead on issues well.
There will be times when an issue will be so important to the Prime Minister and to the Government that we should and will lead. Preparing for Australia’s G20 presidency in 2014 is an example. But even when that happens, we will bring others with us, or we may lead for a limited time, or we may only lead on some parts of an issue.
Often, we will form part of taskforces that pull together a number of agencies. At the moment, we have several examples of these in PM&C – the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper team, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Taskforce and the Environmental Regulation Reform Taskforce.
All are shared endeavours, and PM&C’s involvement varies.
- Some are located in PM&C – some are not
- Two are jointly led, and one is led by an officer from another Department
- They are a varying mix of PM&C staff and staff from relevant Departments; and
- Most importantly, they are operating with the transparent involvement of relevant agencies and with the knowledge and involvement of the relevant agency head.
That shared endeavour is the way I prefer PM&C to work.
3) Carrying out our role: Supporting Government
The second part of the PM&C craft is having the right combination of people and skills and working with each other collaboratively.
The APS is much better than it used to be at collaboration, but we do have further to go. PM&C has its role to play in that, as do all the other agencies in the APS.
Collaboration is important because it is usually the most effective means to an end; because we need to bring a range of perspectives to bear to properly understand the problem; because we need to correctly identify the policies needed to address it; and because we need to work together to deliver as seamless a service to our community as is possible.
That is the way to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the APS in serving government and the people of Australia.
As I indicated earlier, the PM&C Executive operates on using a collaborative model of policy development, advice and, where appropriate, implementation, and it will remain that way.
The Capability Review suggested we need to make this clearer internally and particularly externally. That is one thing I want to do today, because some may not be sure whether PM&C was a competitor or a collaborator. Let me make clear that my starting point for working with the APS is one of collegiate collaboration.
This is how all agencies should operate – including PM&C – and PM&C has an important role to play in modelling collaborative working styles.
PM&C will, of course, always provide its advice to the Prime Minister and there will be times when it offers a second opinion that is different from another department or agency.
Now testing ideas is important to ensure that we, as an APS, settle upon the best alternatives; and it helps to keep us fresh and open minded.
In those situations, any debate should be constructive, because it should be between ideas or approaches, not between people or departments. And when that is the case, PM&C will disagree, and will disagree firmly, but respectfully.
People can, and should, disagree for good reasons, and some of the best policy outcomes come about through collaborative discussion about different views.
I have made my expectations clear to all the staff at PM&C: PM&C will support the work of others, will offer a second opinion for good reasons, and – if we do disagree – we will always disagree respectfully.
And as one of my esteemed predecessors, Sir Geoffrey Yeend, was famous for saying, when we disagree, there should be ‘no surprises’.
4) Supporting Government: a collaborative model
In my last speech to the APS here in Canberra I spoke of my belief in the importance of ‘One APS’.
The APS will always be an organisation with an incredible variety of component parts, people, skills, expertise and responsibilities. Yet, for all our variety, and for all of our many departments and agencies, we work together for the common goal of helping deliver good government for Australia.
And we are at our best when we not only work together effectively, but when we remember we share common values; when we work with our colleagues and not against them; and when we are very mindful of the overall public good.
In my mind, the one way we can most effectively deliver on what others expect of us is through real collaboration.
When PM&C is at its best, the whole of government works better.
In my view, PM&C is at its best when we use our knowledge, our access and our influence to support priority areas for the Prime Minister.
We are also at our best when we use leadership behaviours to support other departments and agencies in achieving outcomes that work and make sense across government. And, importantly, we are at our best when we are sensitive and respectful in all of our dealings across government.
Indeed, PM&C’s role should always be about ‘leadership through collaboration’, whether we are actively leading on a particular policy issue or supporting another agency in leading.
Collaboration should be about bringing together the many perspectives and the great expertise of the APS as a whole. It should not hamper innovation or fresh thinking, because it involves drawing out great ideas among many voices, and then working together to improve them and present them to government in their best possible form.
This is the ‘PM&C Craft’ in operation. It is about identifying, drawing on and working with colleagues from across the APS to achieve the best outcomes for government and Australia. That is the way it should be.
5) Supporting Government: Expectations of the APS
The role I have laid out for PM&C has implications for the whole APS, and I expect PM&C’s approach should be modelled across the APS.
The APS needs to work collaboratively with PM&C, just as PM&C needs to work collaboratively with the APS.
In every department and agency, being a good officer is not just about your intellectual ability and your technical skills.
Beyond expertise, it is about openness to ideas and the willingness to look at an issue from multiple viewpoints, to understand it in all of its innate complexity, and to find the best of the available solutions.
It is also about your ability to work with others, about the relationships you build and your ability to maintain them, within your department or agency, within the APS, and beyond it.
Good relationships that are carefully nurtured help get the right two-way information flows across government.
For example, wherever you work in government, if you can see a problem coming, it is your responsibility to make sure that the right people know about it, including – and especially – in other affected departments and agencies.
Productive relationships across government not only plug you into what you need to help you do your work, they also help others do their jobs better, and we can help prevent problems that way.
I have already told PM&C that, while I am Secretary, people will be appointed and promoted not only because they have good ideas and good judgment, but because they are good with people and good with relationships.
And I believe that this principle should apply to appointments and promotions right across the APS.
For the public service to truly and consistently work as an effective institution unified by the values that define us as one APS, we are all responsible for rewarding behaviour and approaches that bring us together. These include genuine dialogue, information sharing and collaboration between departments and agencies; seeking opportunities to call on the best ideas and expertise from across government; and ensuring a collegiate, respectful approach in all that we do together.
Conclusion and way forward
PM&C’s precise role and involvement in policy priorities does vary with different governments, different Prime Ministers and in different times – but our purpose remains constant.
We give advice to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government. We help the Prime Minister by coordinating policy priorities across government, helping to find opportunities across portfolios, to monitor policy development and implementation, and to properly consider trade-offs. And we help to look after the processes that keep government running well and accountably.
And PM&C has another, long-term role to play in supporting the whole APS. We are a training ground for high-potential public servants, and we give future public service leaders the opportunity to see how government works from the centre.
PM&C will carry out our role in a way that helps everyone across government function as ‘One APS’.
We will use our resources wisely, and will be selective about our involvement. We will only lead on a few select issues, and we will lead collaboratively and, usually, for a limited time.
We will not be competitive for the sake of being so, but at times we will offer a second opinion where necessary and facilitate robust debate to find the best idea.
Finally, we will collaborate. We will play as part of the APS team, and I expect the same from every department, every agency and every public servant. Each of us is part of one APS and we work together for good government.
Working together collegiately and collaboratively will help us to be and to remain the advisers, implementers and deliverers of choice for government, now and into the future.
I am very happy to take your questions.