Civil servants in Australia ‘make stuff up’ creating bureaucracy that isn’t real’, says top official

By on 25/11/2015 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Victoria's Auditor-General has left his post.

Civil servants in Australia “make stuff up”, creating “bureaucracy that isn’t even real,” one of the country’s most senior government officials has said.

Jane Halton – the civil servant in charge of running Australia’s finance department – told Global Government Forum that officials “across the public service” have a tendency to accept and enforce rules added to statutory or regulatory responsibilities by over-zealous officials. These unnecessary rules become accepted, she argued, because people “don’t go back to the source” to check what’s actually required.

Halton’s comments build on remarks she made in a Senate lecture given at Parliament House in August.

Citing the example of procurement rules, which are overseen by her department, she said that “somebody somewhere decides that [the existing rules] aren’t enough for them, and you also need to do x, y and z to augment the procurement rules.”

She added: “Let’s be clear: people make stuff up and then it turns into something which everyone not only assumes but believes to be true… so you end up with bureaucracy that isn’t even real.”

The problem, she argued, is linked to a hyper-cautious approach to risk in the civil service: “A lot of people think that you should manage all risks to zero and you should manage them all the same”, she said, describing this approach as a “fallacy.” Halton often tries to explain to officials that “just because you’re taking risk, that doesn’t mean you’re being reckless.”

However, Halton, whose government is currently trying to reduce red tape, added that people are not trying “to be malicious or ridiculous”. Ensuring that civil servants don’t misinterpret or invent rules, she said, is “a challenge for leadership.”

“The fact that people don’t have a good grasp of the procurement rules isn’t just their fault; it’s also got something to do with us. And we have to think about how we can communicate about what you really, really do need to do to meet your legal and other obligations, and what you don’t,” she said.

Click here to read our full interview with Jane Halton

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

One Comment

  1. guy Savard says:

    Hi! I’m a public servant working for the federal government. I’m based in Ottawa.

    First of all, thank you very much to remind us all (public servants) about that tendency to constantly re-create new ways of doing business with new/modified rules, new/alternative/creative steps and forms/worksheets, prucedures for whatever reason and often time for no reason..

    I’m wondering if there is any study pertaining to the cust (in time and therefore in $$) involved because of that tendency, from over-zealous officials, to make stuff up and then turn rules into something which everyone not only assumes but believes to be true.

    Thank you in advance for any additional info that you might be able to share with us on that!

    Specimen Bank Biologist
    Ottawa, ON

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