26 November 2014
I have thought for many years that the State Services Commission was redundant and should be abolished.
I felt that in these days of more autonomy for departmental chief executives the oversight role of the SSC was no longer necessary, and that the responsibility should rest with individual chief executives.
Recent events have forced me to change that view. Ironically, the utter ineptitude of the SSC’s handling of the Sutton case has been the reason. Here was a case of serious misconduct by a chief executive – which did require external intervention – which was so mishandled by the SSC as to draw attention to the need for it to be seriously reformed.
It should start at the top. The State Services Commissioner has performed very poorly in this instance, and should be replaced. A more vibrant, independent leadership, not politically beholden to the government of the day is needed to oversee reshaping the SSC to become a more performance improvement and professional standards monitor of government agencies and their chief executives, rather than the defender of the status quo and protector of the government’s perceived interests it seems to be at present.
In the same vein, the role of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet merits review. Too often, the DPMC has been seen as a protective mirror image of the SSC, each bolstering and supporting the other, rather than independent agencies carrying out separate functions. The attendance and performance of the DPMC chief executive at the infamous Sutton press conference highlights the point. Worse, however unfounded, is the implication of a very cosy arrangement between CERA, the SSC and DPMC, and Mr Sutton to resolve his situation in a way that minimised embarrassment, with no apparent regard for the victim(s) involved. DPMC should never forget that its role is to provide the Prime Minister of the day with the best possible advice and information on current issues, but not to act, as increasingly appears the case, as some sort of political praetorian guard.
State sector reform since the 1980s has been allegedly about promoting greater transparency and accountability. In the light of the Sutton case, a justifiable argument can be mounted that those principles have been well and truly cast aside, at least by central agencies. Serving the public interest appears to have given way to keeping the ship of state on a smooth course. That is the job of politicians, not public servants, and when they start to confuse the roles, it is time they were moved on.
The only good to emerge from the Sutton case is to learn from all the bad practices it contains. The failings of Mr Sutton, the SSC and the DPMC are now obvious and need to be addressed. Beyond that lies the wider issue of the reform of the key agencies themselves.
But the biggest issue – and the one still unspoken of – is the impact on the victim(s) in both this case, and the many other potential cases continuing undetected across the public sector.
Now, that would be a task a fit for purpose SSC could really focus its attention upon.