The Australian Public Service has been so damaged by and so captive to a “cult of the consultant” that it no longer possessed the skills in-house to perform some functions that should be considered the “core business” of government, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says.
Speaking to InnovationAus’ Commercial Disco podcast as part of a virtual book tour to promote his political autobiography A Bigger Picture, Mr Turnbull said one of the big challenges facing government has been the hollowing out of in-house public service skills.
Mr Turnbull said he had set up the David Thodey-led APS Review in conjunction with his departmental secretary Martin Parkinson with one of the terms of reference aimed directly at rebuilding inhouse skills within the bureaucracy.
“Regrettably, the enthusiasm for that kind of reform is no longer there,” Mr Turnbull said. “It was a bit of a personal agenda of mine and also shared by Martin [Parkinson].”
“You’ve basically had this ‘cult of the consultant’ to the point where the skills for doing so many things that are really core business are no longer in the public service,” he said.
In a wide-ranging podcast interview with the Commercial Disco, Mr Turnbull covered topics ranging from the epic fail of strategic industry policy within the Five Eyes nations that led to a reliance for mobile technology on a tiny handful of suppliers from either Scandinavia or China, to the looking in hindsight at the National Innovation and Science Agenda, as well as where he now sees opportunities as a private investor in tech startups.
But you get a sense of his fascination as a minister and then Prime Minister that departments and agencies would defer so often to expensive consultants for advice in areas where the public servants themselves should reasonably be considered the experts.
The deskilling is ongoing, he says, and damage is being done.
“It’s worse in some departments more than others, but the consultants who obviously make a fortune are, frankly, doing quite a bit of damage to the public service,” Mr Turnbull said.
“They’re not doing it on purpose, I’m not saying that, but those smart people with those skills and those interests should actually be in the public service,” he said.
“You should only be using consultants to do things that are a little bit exotic, where you need a specialist expertise.”
Rebuilding in-house expertise within the public service would take years of focused effort, he said – probably a decade of work.
On the landmark National Innovation and Science Agenda, he said the quick turnaround in the available venture capital in Australia was its most obvious success. There were others, but in the end he says it was perhaps the energy that went into the delivery of the innovation message that was as effective as some of the programs themselves.
“In some ways, the element of NISA that had the biggest impact was literally just talking about innovation, and talking it up,” he said.
“That bully pulpit of the Prime Ministership, that megaphone, is a very powerful one. And if you’ve got the Prime Minister talking as I used to – a lot – about the importance of innovation, well that encourages boards and Super funds and investors to have a look at what they are doing in the innovation field [themselves].”
That innovation messaging was not universally loved within the Coalition. The general political view at the time was that talking about innovation was a bad idea – because it frightened people.
“The difficulty is that, you know, you can either lie to people – which is obviously not unknown in politics – and tell them that everything [in the future] is going to be the same, or you can be honest and say ‘Look, the world is changing, and regardless of what we do it is still changing, and either we harness those changes and take advantage of them, or they run over the top of us,” he said.
“They are the only choices. We are living in an age of change at a pace and scale never seen before, and of course a lot of it is being accelerated by this pandemic.”