Understanding and Defining the Role of Leadership in Government

The accountability of the Federal (Commonwealth) Government is best understood by reviewing the detailed accountability of ministers and departmental secretaries across the extensive portfolios under the stewardship of the Commonwealth Parliament through the functions of the Office of Prime Minister and the Federal Cabinet.

The Australian Public Service Commission (APS) is a core entity within the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio.  Its statutory accountabilities are detailed in the Public Service Act 1999 and include:

  • develop, promote, review and evaluate APS employment policies and practices;
  • facilitate continuous improvement in people management throughout the APS;
  • contribute to learning and development and career management;
  • contribute to and foster leadership in the APS;
  • provide advice and assistance on public service matters to entities; and
  • promote high standards of integrity and conduct in the APS.

The portfolio of the Prime Minister and Cabinet incorporates the department of similar name, though also embraces several ministerial support roles, Government appointed boards and agencies of which the APS is one.

Others include:

  • Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor General;
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders Studies;
  • Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation;
  • Indigenous Business Australia;
  • Australian National Audit office;
  • Office of National Intelligence; and
  • Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Several of these organisations are also guided by boards through the Department or Ministerial offices.  Ministers under the direct stewardship of the Prime Minister include:

  • Minister for Indigenous Australians;
  • Minister for the Public Service;
  • Minister for Women;
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Cabinet; and
  • Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The complexity and breadth of the stewardship under the Federal Government with principal authority in the Commonwealth Parliament include:

  • Agriculture, water and the environment;
  • Attorney Generals;
  • Defence;
  • Education, skills and employment;
  • Finance;
  • Foreign affairs and trade;
  • Health;
  • Home affairs;
  • Industry, science, energy and resources;
  • Infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications;
  • Parliamentary departments;
  • Prime Minister and Cabinet;
  • Social services;
  • Treasury; and
  • Veterans’ affairs (part of the defence portfolio).

Also, within the stewardship of the Australian Government are several courts and judges including:

  • The High Court of Australia
  • The Federal Court of Australia;
  • The Federal Circuit Court of Australia;
  • The Family Court of Australia; and
  • The Supreme Court of Norfolk Island.

The role of ministers, the composition of the Ministry and the role of officers of the Parliament are readily accessible on the web.

The Ministry – Parliament of Australia  www.aph.gov.au

An interesting document articulating the APS’s relationship with ministers and their officers was prepared by Professor Anne Tiernan and Dr Ian Holland in 2019/20.  Their paper addresses several key questions regarding the relationship between the APS and officers of the Parliament.

The paper clearly identifies in graphic terms the areas of shared accountability that require clarity in the mitigation of role confusion or overlap between the administrative and political arms of Government, and the complexity of that relationship – stretching from the constituency which the Parliamentary Member represents; the party they are a member of; the collective role of cabinet where appropriate; and the engagement of the head of the relevant department in determining policy, making decisions and managing the portfolio under the stewardship of the Minister.

The Report also responds to the adequacy of the employment and governance framework that underpins Ministerial Offices and acknowledgement of the need to optimise partisan and non-partisan support for ministers in their decision-making.

The Report has an abundance of references and raises many key questions though does not directly address the fundamental requirement of the experience and capability requirements of ministers with stewardship of complex and varying portfolios; in many cases with oversight of hundreds of millions of annual expenditure and the welfare of numerous constituencies.

What is evident in drawing upon documents articulating the foundation of governance in the APS is that secretaries of government departments are the prime advisor to their minister on policy and have stewardship of the principal agency associated with the design and implementation of government programs.

At a federal level a department secretary’s stakeholders extend beyond the APS to state governments and their parliaments to national or international stakeholders who are affected by decisions of their department.

Many departments have a high policy focus because of the sensitivity of programs primarily dealing with the less well advantaged or global stakeholders.

Increasingly, government departments under the stewardship of a secretary are involved in complex community policy initiatives such as cyber security and the digital economy and/or deal with significant commercial issues and others with highly sensitive political agenda.

Department secretaries are the chief executives with oversight of a myriad of entities either under their direct control or the stewardship of the minister in delivering programs which might be economic; might have a national, international or regional purpose; or which they need to administer within an agreed budget and be subject to public scrutiny through both Senate estimates, commissions of enquiry, and annual reports.

The chief executive of a government department is accountable to the Parliament.  Financial and performance audit can be highly invasive and accountability to an ombudsman can further focus on circumstances of a claimant, irrespective of its merit.

In the political arena a secretary and/or their department can often be subject to changing priorities including the allocation of funds to meet domestic or international programs not considered at the beginning of a financial year; or changing priorities arising from domestic or global policy initiatives.

In many respects a department secretary is the principal advisor on policy (strategic) as well as tactical responses to government programs and/or constituent needs, and in that context requires an agility to manage unexpected change.

A minister in this context is essentially that of the chairman of the functions of the department(s) under their direction, though ministerial accountability and its intersection with that of the department secretary is often without ideal clarity.

Ministerial changes and portfolio changes will add further to the complexity of the role of a chief executive of a significant government portfolio, which may well have stewardship of several hundred million, if not billions of dollars ($) in operating expenditure and assets.

A key demand on the Secretary reporting through a minister and the Parliament, is stewarding critical external relationships while having a sensitivity to changing constituent and political issues or priorities. This will often bring together skill sets not universally common in the private sector.

Chief executives in government departments clearly need a capacity to manage and communicate ambiguity; manage substantial financial resources; have a community sensitivity as well as a sensitivity to variable partisan political priorities – while having a capability to articulate policy and strategies reflecting the visionary aspects of the minister and cabinet, and the Government’s numerous and often competing stakeholders.

Department secretaries as the chief executive of substantial portfolios do operate within clearly articulated governance protocols, which are well known and exist in public documents.

That framework embraced by the APS, incorporates policy across the following areas:

  • constitutional, legal and government framework;
  • authorisation and delegation’
  • accountability;
  • APS values;
  • APS Code of Conduct;
  • whistle blowing;
  • respecting the diversity of the Australian community in providing services;
  • financial management and budget frameworks;
  • employment framework;
  • management and use of Government information;
  • use of legal services;
  • review of Government decision-making;
  • protection of the Commonwealth against crime;
  • security;
  • Native Title and dealing with land; and
  • environmental issues.

Government experience and inter-government engagement, together with changing expectations of Australian citizens lead to the regular refinement of these governance protocols and reporting expectations required to be set out in each department’s annual report.

Risk mitigation and the management of media exposure is a further key accountability of a secretary.  This work becomes particularly critical across portfolios, which are exposed to a 24/7 news cycle.

The relationship management function noted above is onerous and extends beyond ministers to portfolio agencies; other departments; and other agencies impacted upon as a result of a change of government and external stakeholders.

A minister’s portfolio can also be changed by the Prime Minister during a term of government, which will impact upon the activities and functions under the oversight of the Secretary.

As the core advisor in respect of the authorities or commissions or agencies under the stewardship of a minister, the secretary also has oversight of various acts and regulations, which govern the conduct of those entities, including their budgets and financial plans.

The challenge of these functions is very much influenced by the complexity of the entities and the diversity of the constituents impacted by their activities.  Their focus is likely to be predominantly one of social policy or economic policy and the implementation within their portfolio of the agreed outcomes.

The complexity and intensity of managerial stewardship of a chief executive (secretary) of a federal government department under the oversight of a government minister, will be impacted by several core elements, which would include:

  • diversity of subject/policy content;
  • international diversity;
  • whole-of-government focus;
  • expenditure management; and
  • number of staff, including executives, professionals, team leaders, administrators and operatives.