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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REFERENCES COMMITTEE
02/09/2003
Inquiry into members of parliament staff

CHAIR —Welcome back to the inquiry. Thank you for agreeing to be recalled this afternoon. We appreciate that you have made yourself available. I think there are a few other issues that senators wish to put to you.

Senator MOORE —Thank you for coming back, Mr Podger. I do apologise for calling you and your staff back. One of the things that I want to explore with you concerns the degree of awareness within the Public Service agencies of this issue and your role in the Public Service Commission as a coordinator when secretaries and members of staff get together to talk about things that are important to them. Is the issue of the interrelationship between public servants and ministerial staff one that is of importance to public servants? Do they choose to talk about it through the commission process?

Mr Podger —Yes, and they always have done. It is a very standard part of our training of people who are looking to senior positions in the Public Service to talk to them about values and behaviours, particularly the values relating to the relationship between Public Service, the government and the parliament. For example, as a matter of course all our orientation programs for new SES people would include a session with me about the values, and this particular issue is always on that agenda. I would have to say, and not surprisingly given the public interest in this over the last two years, it would probably be the issue that is of most interest amongst people moving into more senior positions.

In conjunction with the Department of the Senate, the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, we also provide regular training courses on issues to do with parliamentary privilege and public servants appearing before parliamentary committees. That always raises issues about public servants' obligations to the parliament, their position of trust and so on with ministers, and the fact that they have to manage both those sets of relationships. It is very much a standard part of our training and discussions within the Public Service. At the commission we have been doing a bit of work in trying to get an assessment of how agencies are managing this. I reported in last year's State of the service report on the survey we did of agencies and the procedures they have. This year we are doing a survey not only of agencies but also of employees. We have asked some questions in this area to check not only the views of the agencies but also the perspective of staff, amongst the many other issues that we have raised in this survey.

Senator MOORE —Mr Podger, can the committee see the questions—in terms of format—that you have asked them?

Mr Podger —I would have no difficulty in providing you with those questions. We will be reporting on that in our report. The JCPAA has agreed for us to report in November rather than October. It has been a bit difficult to try to meet the same timetable as other annual reports when we are drawing on a post end of the year survey of agencies, so we will be reporting on this in November.

Senator MOORE —One of the things that is of interest is the varying approaches across the different agencies. With the decentralisation of management to different agencies, it has lost that kind of centralised approach to issues such as developing guidelines and assessing people working in these areas which are so sensitive. In your research, particularly last year, because you are going into another round which gives you that reinforcement of whether the same trends are following through, was there a wide variation between departments in the way they handled the interaction?

Mr Podger —Last year 88 per cent of agencies reported having some procedures or guidelines on interactions with ministers and their staff. The ones that did not tended to be the small agencies, and my presumption is that that is because a lot of those do not have as many direct relationships with ministers and ministers' staff. They are not involved in the policy side of things. Around seventy-five per cent of agencies use a central coordination function for quality assurance on written material to and from ministers' offices and on specifying such things as minimum classification level for sign-off of briefs and minutes. There are also figures in our report on the number of agencies that require significant email communications to be retained and on issues around record keeping. I suspect that that is an area where improvements are under way, with a lot of work coming from Archives and others to help agencies in this area—very much responding to repeated comments by the Auditor-General in that field. I suspect that some of the figures we have which are at the lower end will be higher when they come through.

Senator MOORE —Is there a concept of this practice when it comes to this particular part of interaction?

Mr Podger —The second report we issued last Monday on embedding the values is like a best practice guideline to senior managers. It is primarily based on studies of six agencies. There is a companion volume with quite a lot of detail of case studies from those six agencies across the whole gamut of values, ethics and so on. You will see within that, in fact, a couple of best practice examples in this broad field. One is from Transport on the way they manage linkages with ministers and offices, and one is from Centrelink on the training they provide for staff on appearing before parliamentary committees. The intention had been to use that as a base for stimulating discussion across the service on good practice.

Senator MOORE —Mr Podger, I have not seen those documents yet. After we have actually had a look at them, there may well be some supplementary questions which we will put to you on notice.

Mr Podger —Certainly.

Senator MOORE —It just seems that everyone who is working through these issues is actually trying to come up with what the core responses are. The process of acknowledging that there is an issue is a good thing in itself. I have a copy of the new guidelines that have been released in terms of the public sector but not the values document, so we will get that as soon as possible.

Mr Podger —As I said, the documents we released on Monday were revised guidelines on official conduct which are aimed at all public servants—particularly managers, but more generally too.

Senator MOORE —That was yesterday?

Mr Podger —It was last Monday, a week ago. The second document we released was more directed at managers and it was about the systems and procedures that they ought to have in place to embed the values. As I said, we drew on these six agencies. We also drew on quite a lot of international material—particularly from the OECD and what they have seen as good practice. So you will see that a lot of the stuff we have got reflects what we think is international best practice.

Senator MOORE —This morning, we heard from Dr Shergold and Dr Watt. One of the things that Senator Carr was exploring with the two department heads was concerns about the public perception of the public sector, as well as the public perception of the system. Both Dr Watt and Dr Shergold stated that in their departments and in their opinions the complementary relationships are working very strongly and that there is a strong level of knowledge and awareness within the service and, from their point of view, within the ministers' offices about what each other's responsibilities were and how they could work effectively together. I would like a general comment from you about your perceptions of whether that strong complementary relationship is effectively working across the public sector.

Secondly, I would also like some comment—and I understand it will be subjective—about the various public articles that have been around about concerns about the politicisation of the public sector and the role of the public sector in decision making and also about the stuff, particularly from the Canberra Times, about interference in the way things operate. You are very much aware of all the media that is around, and I would like some comment about whether there have been any questions raised in the community about the independence and strength of the public sector.

Mr Podger —I will answer that in different parts. In my own experience—not only as commissioner for less than the past two years but as head of the health department for the previous six years and as head of housing when Mr Brian Howe was my minister—the relationships between the Public Service and advisers have generally been very good. I was quite interested in Prime Minister Howard's comment in 1996 in which he talked about his experience when he had been the Treasurer and the degree of alienation between advisers and public servants at that time. Coming back into the ministry, he expressed a view about how improved that relationship was in 1996. Looking over my career, that is true—the Public Service has adapted to the need to be much more responsive than we were in the seventies. We have improved a long way, and part of that improvement has been the strength of the relationship between the Public Service and advisers.

I am aware that there is some unease in areas of the public about how well this is operating. Some of the criticisms are grossly exaggerated. For example, in the commission I deal a great deal with senior appointments in the service—that is, the senior executive service: not so much the heads of agencies but all the positions below that. In the Public Service Act it says quite clearly that those appointments are not to be in any way directed by ministers. I have not seen any pressure of that sort in my experience. In terms of the issue of politicisation of appointments within the service, I would have to say that there is no sign of politicisation in that process in appointments that come through anywhere that I see.

I think issues have arisen on occasions where there has been some misunderstanding by some advisers of the values of the service and the importance of our apolitical and professional role. I have not seen that as an endemic problem, but we would be silly to pretend that it has not arisen from time to time. I hasten to say from personal experience that this is not an issue of party politics; this is an issue that happened from time to time under the Hawke-Keating government and happens from time to time under the current government. I guess my role is to try and promote the values to APS employees and give some sort of a public profile to the importance of these issues. That is part of my role. I am also pleased to see my colleague the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has similarly taken a higher profile in recent times promoting the APS values and how important they are to the service. I think that is one way of giving a bit of leadership to the service on these issues.

Senator MOORE —If you are a member of the Public Service, you have a clear understanding from when you are appointed about your accountability and the results of you doing something that brings into disrepute the public sector. There is a process in place and you are told about it. If anything goes wrong, you know that there will be a level of accountability. I would be interested to know whether, given your experience, you believe that the public sector workers feel that same degree of accountability occurs in ministerial offices, where people are working closely together at senior levels. Dr Watt assured me this morning that 98 per cent of the time—or some high 90s per cent of the time—everything is fine, and we accept that, but I want to focus on the small number of cases when a crisis does occur. If you do have a crisis which is somehow shared between the ministerial staff and the public servant, the public servant knows what the outcomes of his or her action could be. Is there faith that there is a similar awareness of what the implications of their actions would be for the minister's staff?

Mr Podger —In some respects the advisers are more sharply accountable than the public servants in their role as an extension of the minister. If they get it wrong, they lose the confidence of the minister very quickly and their rights, if you like, are far more limited in some respects than the public servants'. In the guidelines for public servants that we issued we talked a little bit about the ways of handling issues and challenges should they arise. One of the things I will be reporting on in this year's State of the service report will be the perceptions of those who deal with ministers' offices on that. In a preliminary examination of the material so far, not surprisingly it would appear that challenges arise quite frequently. I suspect that has always been true. It also appears at this stage that most of those challenges—not every single one—are resolved effectively, which is an interesting sort of result. We are still going through our data and checking that a bit more.

We advise that people should try and resolve an issue directly between the APS employee and the adviser. If there is an issue, they should raise it up the line. If necessary, they should raise it with the secretary. Under certain circumstances—and this is very unusual—the secretary may wish to raise it with the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or with me. If that should happen, the minister should always be kept informed—that is the advice here.

In my experience as head of a department I used to have regular informal meetings with the principal adviser or the chief of staff, one or the other, where we discussed the relationship, how it was going and what issues were arising. There were always issues on both sides. For example, the adviser would say to me, `Look, this area of the department is not quite as quick to respond as these other ones. Is there something we can do to sharpen that up?' And we would talk about that. I might say, `Look, I think some of the advice coming from this area is something you really ought to listen to because it is actually raising some important issues of due process or whatever and needs to be taken very seriously rather than just simply glossed over.'

I used to have those sorts of discussions on a very regular basis, and they would iron out of a lot of the snags in the relationship that might be occurring around a large organisation with a minister with a substantial office. I would advocate to my colleagues to do that sort of thing, and I think most of them do. That was supplemented by some broad protocols about advisers not contacting people too far down the line as a matter of course, unless they really had to. If they did have to go down the line, they would understand that there would have to be some upwards management of that to ensure the quality and the overall checking of the advice and the responses that were being provided by the department. I think most agencies have either written or unwritten guidance of that sort.

Senator MOORE —Some of the information we received indicated that there used to be a myth that people who worked in ministers' offices often had a Public Service background. A couple of the submissions mentioned that there would be a degree of knowledge. If you are a serving member of the Public Service and you choose to be recruited, not as a departmental liaison officer but in some other way, to go and work in a minister's office, what is the process for making that choice and then returning to the Public Service? Is that easy to do?

Mr Podger —As a general rule, yes, it is. Indeed, I believe the relationship between the advisers and the Public Service is helped by a number of the advisers having had experience in the Public Service. I cannot remember which one, but one of the submissions has some data on that. I believe there is still quite a substantial number of advisers who have had experience in the Public Service, and I think that is a good thing. I also think it is a good thing for the Public Service to have people who have worked as advisers in ministers' offices and who have an understanding of the way this place operates and the pressures that ministers face. That direct experience is of huge help to have within a department as well, not just as DLOs. Mostly, a person would go on leave without pay, and then they would be able to come back into the service at the level at which they had left.

Senator MOORE —And that is a delegation within each individual department?

Mr Podger —Yes.

Senator MOORE —You ask for leave without pay within your own department, it is approved—or not—and then, when your term finishes, you ask to come back.

Mr Podger —I would be very surprised if any agency were reluctant to give that agreement very readily. It is a standard approach. Can I answer a question that Senator Carr asked me just before the break? He raised a question about trust. I think by implication he was wondering whether we were raising the issue of trust as something new because it was a bigger problem than it might have been in the past. I reflected on that in the break, and I found that the last document issued in 1996 by the management advisory board and the management improvement advisory committee—for which most of the work was done in 1995 and 1994—actually also refers very directly to this issue of trust. It has always been an issue. Making the relationship work well requires a degree of trust. I do not think that, all of a sudden, this has become an issue in the last 12 months. I think having a relationship of trust has always been at the heart of making this thing work.

Senator WATSON —A different approach was put to us this afternoon, and earlier in a submission, by Dr John Uhr. His approach is that parliament must take greater responsibility for the management of the public accountability of ministerial staff. He says we are dealing with the `conduct of a largely unregulated group of politically-powerful public officials'. Do you agree?

Mr Podger —I do not have the submission in front of me, but I did read it just before I came forward. There are a number of variations on a theme here. I have been suggesting benefits of having some statement or articulation of values in a code of conduct. Senator Murray has been suggesting that there be a more specific provision within the MOP(S) Act about the authority or the lack of executive authority of advisers. John Uhr is saying that this issue is in the political arena and is more an issue for parliament to look at. He is suggesting some approach, under the presiding officers, where there might be some ministerial standards arrangement.

I am conscious that the Canadians have played a bit with this notion of an ethics adviser. It was up until this year an adviser to the Prime Minister. I think they have now passed the legislation to make it a statutory position—not without some debate in Canada. My comments earlier still stand. There needs to be some caution about how far you can go in directly regulating what is going to end up being a political discussion and debate. The view I have been putting is that political discipline might be guided by a clearer statement of values and a clearer code of conduct, but I am not sure it is sensible to put them into a formal structure or process. In a sense, these are variations on themes that are being put to the committee.

Senator WATSON —Taking this concept a little bit further, we have talked about a standards commission or an integrity commissioner. How do you view that in terms of transparency and accountability to the parliament?

Mr Podger —If you go down this route it is going to prove to be quite a difficult process in terms of how you handle the references and how politically the whole thing would operate. I am uncertain as to how you would make it work. I would feel very uncomfortable about being put into that sort of a position, given the nature of the political business in this building.

Senator WATSON —Having said that, what are the risks and advantages of going down that path? You say you feel uncomfortable. Can you elucidate the risks as well as the advantages of going down that path for us?

Mr Podger —I had seen some benefits in building on what has already happened in terms of the Prime Minister's guide to his ministers, which includes some guidance to the ministers' personal staff. A clearer articulation of those would provide useful broad political discipline. In regard to turning that into a specific way of investigating a particular complaint, you are in a much better position than I am to comment about how you would make that operate, given the experience of privilege committees and so on in this place. I am not sure how well this would operate with that process.

Senator WATSON —But you have not articulated the advantages or the risks of going down that path for me. You caution—

Mr Podger —I am hinting that I am not too sure that it would actually operate other than as a political debate. I am not too sure that it would actually enhance the way in which the process would operate. I cannot see that it would add a new dimension that one would have faith in.

Senator WATSON —It would certainly make it more transparent. These people are paid out of the public purse.

Mr Podger —I am not too sure I can add any more to my answer. I am making, I suppose, a personal judgment from my experience. Senators here are in a far better position to comment on that than I am. Trying to overlay that level of direct procedural discipline in this place over ministers I doubt would add more to it than the existing processes of scrutiny of ministers in the two chambers.

I have seen the advantage of having a clearer code of conduct for advisers, associated with a statement of values, as a useful way of reminding advisers of their professional role and providing in that sense a promotion of their professionalism and their understanding of the role and the corresponding role of the Public Service as a way of improving that relationship and professionalism. I am not too sure that I am after a system which actually administers detailed processes in relation to breaches of that code. I still think that that is likely to be left to the political process.

Senator WATSON —Don't you think there is a need for a mechanism to ensure that the so-called boundaries that you have established are not breached and that there have got to be sanctions for breaching?

Mr Podger —This is in the political milieu; it is a little bit different to within the Public Service itself.

Senator WATSON —But they are paid by the public purse.

Mr Podger —For that very reason, I believe a clearer statement of the values and code of conduct would be useful. I am simply raising the practical issue of whether some further machinery for investigating breaches would actually work or whether the existing machinery would be aided by having a clearer statement but does not need anything more than that. I see this as an option. I see some weaknesses in practice on it, but it is a variation on a theme and I guess I have been proposing something a little bit less than this option.

Senator WATSON —It has also been put to the committee that there needs to be a better framework and that that framework has to have a number of pillars, including the codes of conduct et cetera and a number of other features. How do you view that concept? I know it is a departure from the existing protocol, but is that worth pursuing? We are talking about pillars such as more transparency and the code of conduct as well as administrative transparency. Some of those things seem to be lacking at the present time, and they are the deficiencies that were worrying some members of the committee.

Mr Podger —Maybe it would be helpful if I clarified what I mean by a statement of values and a code of conduct. At the end of John Uhr's paper there is a statement, which I strongly support, which says that any such code of conduct or set of values would clarify that the ministerial staffer must not `interfere with compliance by public servants with their own code'. One of the issues here is an appreciation of the responsibilities of public servants and an appreciation that advisers should not act in a way which might try to induce public servants to do otherwise than abide by their values and code of conduct. You will see that that is one of issues that is also raised in the UK code, and it is raised, I think, in the Queensland one you referred to, Chair. I would see that as an important part of any statement of values.

In trying to clarify the Public Service values for the purposes of promoting them to APS employees I have seen value in grouping our values under four headings: the relationship between the Public Service and the government and the parliament; the relationship with the public; the relationship with the workplace; and personal behaviours. Those headings are quite useful to think about here. Clearly, the relationship with the government and the parliament would be a different set of principles than those the Public Service has. But the other ones, I suspect, would be almost identical to the sorts of values and the code of conduct we have about personal behaviours, relations with the public and workplace arrangements. But there would be some variations in particular in the first group, given the different sets of responsibilities they have with ministers as opposed to what we have.

Senator WATSON —Are you familiar with the code of conduct for special advisers as enunciated by the Blair government?

Mr Podger —Yes.

Senator WATSON —Could that be implemented, because again that was drawn up by the parliament as opposed to the Prime Minister? There is some symbolism certainly in that, isn't there? There has been talk about the erosion of the power of the parliament in terms of accountability for the power that is exercised by these powerful advisers.

Mr Podger —One of the benefits of the Public Service Act in 1999 was that it was passed by the parliament in a bilateral way. That helped in the Public Service.

Senator WATSON —It did not really cover the people we are talking about.

Mr Podger —No, it does not. If we went down the route that I am proposing, which would involve some extension of what is already in the Prime Minister's guide, there would be some advantage if that were seen by the parliament as the way to go. If you put it in legislation and you added to it a machinery for handling breaches, I am not too sure whether that would work in practice. Bearing in mind that the advisers are part and parcel in my view of ministers, if you are applying this directly in a discipline over ministers, you have to think about why you would do that differently from the normal accountabilities you have in this parliament.

Senator WATSON —Do Dr Uhr's proposals include mechanisms for dealing with recalcitrant advisers? Is that an essential feature of what is being proposed? After all, Dr Uhr says that he prefers the third path of the three alternatives that he puts forward.

Mr Podger —I am not sure I can add much more to what I have said. In a sense Dr Uhr has put a variation on a theme that is in a number of submissions. My preferred one is a less legalistic formal process around it, but I do believe there would be advantage in a clearer statement of values and code of conduct, which I think would aid the professional role of advisers and their relationship with the Public Service.

Senator WATSON —Do you think there should be a parliamentary oversight of the numbers or a total budget for ministerial staff? I know there has not been an explosion, but that is not to say that there will not be an explosion in the future.

Mr Podger —The Wicks committee in the UK has talked about trying to put something in a formal way on that score. The issue of the numbers is a matter of continued debate within the parliament and whether there needs to be an absolute cap. In my submission I have said that there is an issue about the numbers and that at some point, if we kept expanding on them, making the system work would become more difficult. We have reached a bit of a plateau in the last few years and I would see some advantage in staying where we are rather than expanding further.

One of the issues of the important element of trust between a minister and the Public Service and the complementary role of advisers is that advisers have a role that should not subsume the role of the Public Service. It should get the best out of the Public Service to make sure that a government is able to exercise its democratic rights and the agenda which it has been elected to pursue. But there is a risk. If you have a lot of advisers, the mechanics of that is that you run the risk of their being the trusted group and the Public Service being the not trusted group. If there are too many of them, you get that overlay which none of us would like to see. I caution on allowing the growth to increase willy-nilly, but the truth of the matter is that it has been plateaued out for some years and I do not see the current number as a problem. I hasten to say that the number in Australia is a lot more than in the UK and, for the most part, we have been able to make that work very well.

Senator MOORE —On Senator Watson's point, this morning Dr Shergold said that in the new environment a greater contestability of advice is being given to ministers and that we had moved away from the monopoly advice in the public sector. Does that fit in with your view of the way it operates in terms of the wide range of advice sources which ministers now have, of which only one is the public sector?

Mr Podger —I think Peter is absolutely right. He has been right to highlight that, and he has not been the first one to highlight it. I can remember Mike Keating highlighting this issue a few years ago. Both of them have embraced the issue, saying that it has been good for our democratic system to have that wider range of advice coming to governments. I put a slightly different twist on it. Peter presented it as being that, therefore, the advisers are only one part of the process and these other things are a more important part of the story—and I think that is correct. But the other twist on it is that this is the very reason why ministers do need advisers. There are now a wider range of pressures on ministers, and they need a resource to help them manage that. If that resource were purely within departments, there would be some pressure on departments to be more political than there has been. This resource to help ministers manage that political agenda has been very important.

CHAIR —I note that comment was made in one of the submissions—I am not sure whether it was in yours or in another one. Following on from that, could it be argued that that actually enhances the accountability of the minister, even in circumstances where he or she may not be supplied with the information, the advice or whatever. In other words, in order to deal with the greater demands upon ministers today, they have been given more staff, more ministerial advisers and so on. That then should not be used as an excuse for ministers to say, `I did not get the advice or the information from that particular adviser.' It does not relieve the responsibility on the individual employee if they should have passed the advice or information on and did not. Do you see the point? There is a catch-22—an irony—here, in that having all these additional staff in order to assist you can at the same time be used as a mechanism to, as it were, create a fog or the firewall that has been talked about.

Mr Podger —I have seen that point raised in a number of places, and I suppose there have been some examples to suggest that is so. I think for the most part, however, the advisers have helped ministers and made ministers able to be more responsive to the many pressures and interest groups which in a democracy you would wish them to do.

CHAIR —I will go to a couple of other questions. I am conscious that we have kept you very late, Mr Podger. I appreciate that. In your submission you state at page 9 that two key products are at an advanced stage of development: a revision of the Guidelines on official conduct of Commonwealth Public Servants—a summary and the Good practice guide to agencies. Are you able to indicate—

Mr Podger —They were released last Monday. They are here. I think I provided them to the committee.

CHAIR —Thank you. We will incorporate those as an appendix to your submission. You have referred to the UK position and what is happening in Canada. The parliaments of those countries are looking at how they might strengthen concepts of accountability and so on. Doesn't that suggest that we are a long way behind? If they already have procedures and regulatory systems in place and are looking to improve and strengthen them, shouldn't we, at least on that basis, be more proactive than we are?

Mr Podger —I have two comments on that. I think that in some respects we are well ahead of most of the countries that I have mentioned. We have a more accepted approach of ministerial advisers who are politically appointed and separate from the Public Service. We have the advantage of having the MOP(S) Act, so they are not under the Public Service Act. Some of the others are yet to make that distinction and are looking to do so.

In Britain, they are still getting used to the fact that a more responsive government would be aided by some more advisers, and they are still trying to map that out. They have not had as much experience with that as we have had. Interestingly, some of the things they are looking at have been to question whether their public service is as responsive as it should be. For example, I know that they have been debating the particular way civil service commissioners provide advice on senior appointments to the public service—whether ministers ought to be given more than one name for appointments of heads of agencies and things of that sort—to allow ministers to have a look at it. There are issues both ways when we look at the UK.

That said, obviously in terms of my submission to you, I think there is some advantage in picking up aspects of what they have done. I certainly would not see that they are somehow way ahead of us. I think there are certain things we can learn from them but I think there is quite a lot they could learn from us.

CHAIR —I raised it but to be fair. I suppose it is more relevant to comments made earlier by Dr Shergold that there is a recognition in those parliaments—in those governments—that this is an issue they are having to look at at the moment, even though they have, at least in some respects, a more defined system involving the accountability of the parliament in this regard. So it suggests at least that not everything is okay.

Mr Podger —I guess all I am saying is that this is an evolving area and we would be silly to stand still. We should be looking at where we can improve.

CHAIR —Yes. Particularly given that, in more recent times, their parliament has been confronted with some of the very issues that we have been focused on, including the establishment of committee inquiries into intelligence regarding the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction et cetera.

I would like to move to the issue of the engagement of departmental liaison officers. As we know, the number of those positions has been growing. At page 19 of your submission you state:

... it is important ... that the number and functions of DLOs are regularly scrutinised, partly to ensure that DLOs are not doing work more appropriately performed by MOP(S) Act staff.

Referring to Dr Russell's submission again—and he is appearing tomorrow—he argues that there may be no clear role for DLOs any more, at least on one level, if a minister's office is to function separately from the department. I would like you to expand on your comments. In particular, who would you see performing scrutiny of the functions performed by DLOs? Presumably you have some concerns. Are you aware of instances where the lack of a clear delineation between the two has arisen as an issue?

Mr Podger —I would like to make a couple of comments. I believe that DLOs are a critical part of making the relationship work; I think they play a very important role. Indeed, in my experience, ministers and departments make a mistake if they only put in very junior people who manage only the paperwork. I think it is always wise to put in somebody with a bit of experience and judgment who can play a positive role within the minister's team, but recognising that they are in fact public servants.

I have given advice to people who take on DLO jobs over many years and the advice is always in those two parts. Firstly, while you are in the minister's office you are part of the minister's team. You are there to help the minister and to work with the advisers there and that is really important. You should not be seen by them as a spy from the department. You have got to be there and be trusted as part of their team. Secondly, you are a public servant and your specific role is not to enter into the partisan stuff. But you can help the advisers there to find out who to talk to, where further information might be found and so on. Providing that extra support rather than just being a paper shuffler has always been the better way to operate, in my experience.

CHAIR —What if they need to be located in the minister's office? I acknowledge that in one respect I might be being a bit of a devil's advocate here, because I know from my own experience that I have utilised the opportunity to deal directly with departmental liaison officers in certain ministers' offices and I have found them very useful—extremely helpful. But if I could make the same phone call to that person in the department, I could probably still get the same advice and the same assistance.

Mr Podger —But it might take you somewhat longer, and the DLO—

CHAIR —Not necessarily. Let me give the example of the Child Support Agency. Members of parliament get a lot of issues raised with them about problems with child support. They actually have established a point for members and senators to liaise directly with, because they appreciate that this is an area where we get a lot of constituent issues raised with us. We have the opportunity to deal directly with those public servants, but they are not necessarily located in the minister's office as DLOs.

Mr Podger —I was not taking the perspective of the DLO's role in helping representations that are made to a minister to be directed to the right area of the department. I was thinking more of their role in assisting with the coordination of material for ministers for ministerial decision making. My strong advice to ministers has always been to not have only a junior person who helps to manage the paper. That is an important part of the workload; a lot of ministers have thousands of pieces of paper going through their offices every week and you need a resource to help manage that, but I always have advised them to have somebody who is more than that, who is able to participate in the office discussions of policy issues and can say to them when they are having these discussions: `You may want to get a bit more information around this. I think there are people in the department who you really ought to be engaging with to bring to bear on this because I think that your discussion is more limited than it should be.' That capacity is very hard for a junior person to have.

It is a way of helping in the relationship between the minister and the office and the department to ensure that the expertise in the department is actually brought to bear. Sometimes things are running so quickly that there is a risk that the information is not brought in. A DLO can help to handle that. It ends up not being just a DLO. You hope, as was mentioned earlier by Dr Maley, that in most cases particular advisers have forged very close links with particular areas of the department—they know each other and they know how it is working—but a DLO who can add a level of policy experience and discretion is very important. It also is quite a good demonstration to the office and to the minister of the quality available in the department. I have always seen it as part of selling my department to have a good person there.

CHAIR —The question I put to you at the outset of my comments—and I admit I have probably taken you away from it—was in relation to your comment about the need to regularly scrutinise the number and functions of DLOs. How do you see that being undertaken? Who would do it? Who would be responsible for it?

Mr Podger —Essentially that is now done via the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has directions to ministers on the number of the DLOs; if there is a variation on that, there has to be a process of seeking the Prime Minister's approval. We would provide extra DLO support for a period if there were a particular pressure. If there were a major issue that is leading to much more correspondence or whatever, we might provide that. But there are guidelines from the Prime Minister on how to manage it to ensure that this is not seen as just a general support. The issue becomes most sensitive, of course, in the election period and I have quoted in the submission the guidance that there is about the handling of that.

CHAIR —Do you have any concerns the other way around, with employees in a minister's office who are also MOPS employees performing duties that might otherwise be undertaken by the Public Service?

Mr Podger —In a sense, yes. I think my advice is to ensure that the advisers take advantage of the expertise that is in the department. There have been occasions where, in the rush of things, they have decided they know enough and can get on with it. That can quite frequently trip the minister up. If you have got the relationship right, that does not happen. It can be an issue where sometimes, particularly when you are dealing with whole of government, the advisers work with the other advisers and, as they are all working together to make it happen, they have not actually drawn on the respective expertise from the different agencies. I think that that is something that, if we got the relationship right, would not happen. But it is sometimes a risk.

To talk a little more about this issue of public servants coming under the MOP(S) Act for a period, the Prime Minister issued a direction in 1999 that provides for mandatory granting of leave without pay to work under the MOP(S) Act and for a right of return to the agency. There actually is an instruction of the Prime Minister on that.

Senator MOORE —I know they are on record somewhere, but can we get a copy of that? I like to keep my knowledge up to date.

CHAIR —Could you tell us what the levels of the DLOs are?

Mr Podger —I would have to talk to the Prime Minister's department, which normally coordinates that.

CHAIR —I am not seeking it on an office by office basis. Given your comment about not having junior people in there—

Mr Podger —There is general guidance on that that comes from the Prime Minister's office and the department. For the most part the senior DLO will be an EL2, just below the SES. As I said, I always look to get one of my best EL2s—somebody who I think has got prospects of being in the Senior Executive Service. It is good experience for them and there is a return in terms of development as well as providing services I have just been talking about.

CHAIR —You have had instances drawn to your attention of where those DLOs have been requested or directed or put under pressure to perform work that would not necessarily be appropriate for them?

Mr Podger —Not in a major way. The issue there has not in my experience been a substantial one. It is something I simply give advice on; just be careful of. I have not in my experience seen a big issue.

CHAIR —You would hear about it if it happened—is that the point? Would it go to the department and maybe stop there?

Mr Podger —I think I would. I am just reflecting on a couple of instances over my career. They have not been ones where there was an easy answer for it. What I have welcomed is the DLO ringing and saying, `I have got an issue; how do I manage this?' It has been something we have been able to work our way through. It has not been a major problem. Some of this issue about the DLO resources is more difficult than that; that is, they are doing quite proper work but that proper work may be seen to be freeing up wider resources. I am talking about in, say, an election period being quite clear that not only are they doing the job they should do but they are not in some indirect way making it easier than they ought to in the political hothouse of an election. That has been an issue from time to time.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, I thank you, Mr Podger, for appearing today and agreeing to come back. We will adjourn until tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.

Committee adjourned at 6.15 p.m.