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The Role of Departmental Secretaries

The Role of Departmental Secretaries: Personal reflections on the breadth of responsibilities today OPEN ACCESS

Andrew Podger
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: ANU Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hcj0
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  • Book Info
    The Role of Departmental Secretaries
    Book Description:

    Andrew Podger's monograph, The Role of Departmental Secretaries, Personal reflections on the breadth of responsibilities today, is an important contribution to the broader public policy discourse in Australia. Andrew has been, at times, an unflinching commentator on issues of bureaucratic performance, accountability and responsiveness to government. Andrew's reflections are drawn from his own experiences within the inner circle of Australian policy-making. In this monograph, he presents a highly nuanced portrait of the role of Commonwealth departmental secretaries. Although a 'player' himself at key moments in recent policy history, Andrew is a dispassionate and thoughtful observer of events. This is not merely a memoir: this work is rich in analysis and Andrew offers a number of 'lessons learned' to be heeded (or not) by the present and future generations of policy practitioners.  

    eISBN: 978-1-921536-80-9
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Foreword (pp. ix-x)
    Margaret Guilfoyle

    It is a rare privilege to read a personal career history in which so many of the principal features allow for reflection and others are instructive of later developments in the role of departmental secretaries in our system of government.

    I have observed Andrew Podger’s career in the Australian Public Service since the 1970s with interest, admiration and gratitude for the insight and competence he has assiduously given to his increasing responsibilities.

    It is timely that the history of reform in public administration over three decades is recorded in this monograph and revealing to study relationships with Parliament and government....

  2. The formal responsibilities of departmental secretaries are set out in the Public Service Act 1999 in Section 57:

    (1) The Secretary of a Department, under the Agency Minister, is responsible for managing the Department and must advise the Agency Minister in matters relating to the Department.

    (2) The Secretary of a Department must assist the Agency Minister to fulfil the Agency Minister’s accountability obligations to the Parliament to provide factual information, as required by the Parliament, in relation to the operation and administration of the Department.

    The Public Service Act also requires agency heads to promote (not just uphold) the...

  3. The time secretaries devote personally to different aspects of their responsibilities depends on a number of factors including the functional responsibilities and size of the portfolio and department, the style of the minister(s) and the personal preferences and style of the secretary.

    Personal style is not a minor factor. Notwithstanding the development by the APS Commission of its generic SES leadership capabilities, each secretary (and each SES officer) has his or her own style of leadership. This affects how they do their job as secretary and how they allocate their scarce time. Being aware of this themselves is also important,...

  4. Supporting the minister encompasses a range of activities designed to ensure the minister is well informed when making decisions, is well positioned for influencing collective decision making by the government and can be confident that decisions for the portfolio are effectively implemented in the way intended.

    The secretary’s role involves:

    informing and educating the minister about the department’s responsibilities and programs and, indeed, about the processes of government and public service

    communicating to the department the minister’s objectives, priorities and preferred style of working, as well as the minister’s decisions to be put into effect

    marshalling advice from the department...

  5. The contribution of secretaries to ‘collective responsibility’ involves a number of activities, which overlap and link with the activities involved in supporting the minister. These include:

    involvement with cabinet and cabinet committees such as the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC)

    contributing to cross-portfolio policy development and review

    participating in meetings of secretaries, particularly meetings chaired by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM& C).

    In addition, there has been an increasing role for formal guidance from the Prime Minister to ministers on political priorities over a term of office. As described in Chapter 3, charter letters...

  6. Secretaries are responsible through their ministers to the Parliament. They interact directly through:

    appearances before Parliamentary Committees

    occasional constituency activities involving departmental program management

    meetings of government committees

    official functions.

    Senate Committee hearings are the main occasions when secretaries interact directly with Parliament and its members. Departments appear before their respective Senate Legislation Committees (still commonly referred to as Senate Estimates Committees) at least twice and usually three times a year: directly after the budget, when the committees are focusing on the Appropriation Bills 1 and 2 for the year ahead; in November, when they have annual reports for the...

  7. This role of a secretary is closest to that of a chief executive in the private sector, but is still quite different given the accountability structures involved. It involves:

    setting the strategic direction of the organisation in line with the minister’s policies

    having a top management structure that facilitates effective overall administration with appropriate lines of accountability

    using this structure to monitor program performance and implementation of government decisions, and to help manage risks

    having staffing arrangements (including industrial arrangements) to ensure efficient and effective program delivery and quality policy advice

    fostering a productive culture throughout the organisation that delivers...

  8. The term ‘portfolio secretary’ had no legal status and, unlike ‘portfolio ministers’, departmental secretaries did not in my time have any formal responsibilities over the other agencies in the portfolio. The term is not, however, without clear meaning: the portfolio secretariy is the most senior official in each portfolio and is expected to coordinate various activities across agencies for the portfolio minister and for the government as a whole.

    The core elements of this role are:

    to ensure good lines of communication across the portfolio, with the minister(s) and with central agencies

    to participate on relevant boards and committees of...

  9. The main groups I worked with directly as a secretary that were external to the Commonwealth were:

    the states and territories

    advisory bodies and interest groups

    academics and international groups (including governments, multinational bodies and networks of experts)

    the media.

    The work included formal negotiations and discussions, consultations, shared learning and information exchange. Working with the media is a particularly complex and sensitive matter, which is therefore addressed separately in Chapter 9.

    Most portfolios these days must engage with the states. For those with continuing financial dealings, such as the departments of Housing and Health, there are periods of intense...

  10. Perhaps the most sensitive external group a secretary interacts with is the media. Particularly in the Howard Government years, any direct interaction had to be handled with great care. The relationship between politics and the media has always been critical and, also, essentially symbiotic. The Public Service and particularly departmental secretaries are inevitably affected by this relationship whether or not they have direct, personal contact with journalists. In my experience, one of the greatest changes in public administration during the past 30 years has been the increased importance and sophistication (and sensitivity) of communications management.

    The main ways in which...

  11. Agency heads have a statutory obligation to promote as well as uphold the APS Values, many of which can be traced back to the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854, which established the Westminster tradition of a professional, non-partisan career public service. All portfolio secretaries and heads of some other large agencies are also members of the Management Advisory Committee, which is a statutory body under the Public Service Act. This reflects an obligation on secretaries that goes beyond their management of departments to contribute to improved management practices throughout the APS and to strengthening APS capability.

    Secretaries meet this obligation...

  12. Secretaries and other agency heads are all individuals with their own personal histories and personal styles and habits. Nonetheless, there are common skills and capabilities required for these jobs that need to be developed and nurtured, and their application supported and assessed. This chapter is a little more personal than the others, reflecting my own background and style, while also attempting to draw out issues and lessons. It canvasses:

    career planning and development

    continuing professional development

    personal support

    performance assessment.

    Australia does not have a formal, structured approach to grooming people for top public service positions, unlike practice in some...

  13. I was Public Service Commissioner for three years from the beginning of 2002 until the end of 2004. The position is a statutory office under the Public Service Act 1999 and, once appointed, a commissioner cannot be removed other than by the Parliament. The commissioner nonetheless has a minister (in fact, two: the Prime Minister and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Public Service).

    The following summarises the role from my experience, using similar headings to those of the earlier chapters concerning departmental secretaries, which can be used to summarise the responsibilities of almost all heads of government...

  14. The very writing of this monograph has highlighted some of the modern challenges for secretaries and for public administration. How much should a retired secretary reveal about the goings-on in government that were rightly at the time kept confidential? Does revelation by a former secretary, even after two or more elections, make current ministers less trusting of their relationship with current secretaries? Should the rule applying to cabinet papers (foreshadowed recently to be reduced from 30 years to 20 years) be the benchmark, or a shorter period, particularly if no genuinely sensitive information is revealed?

    To omit examples of the...