The Thodey Review – dead on arrival?

Posted on March 17, 2020

This is the first of a series of short newsletters on the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, commonly known as the Thodey review, after its chair, the former CEO of Telstra.


The portents of the review were not good. As its own report notes, the review was the 18th review in 10 years and the previous ones had shown ‘little sign of performance improvement’. And this 18th report was presented to a different Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, than the one who initiated the review, Malcolm Turnbull. Morrison is, of course a very different operator from Turnbull and in fact is highly unlikely to have initiated such a review of the APS. Upon becoming Prime Minister he clearly set his own stamp by reportedly having told the review team to toughen up the recommendations in its draft report, released in March 2019.


The Prime Minister also took the unusual step of giving a major speech on the Australian public service in a presentation to an ACT IPAA forum in Canberra in April 2019. Tellingly, this speech made scant mention of the Thodey review and somewhat usurped the review by articulating his own set of six ‘guideposts’ in laying out his expectations of the APS (more about these guideposts in a later newsletter). The final report of the Thodey review accommodated these signposts, albeit somewhat clumsily.


To further signal who was really in charge of the APS, the Prime Minister then announced major machinery of government (MoG) changes in the week before the release of the Thodey review. These changes made no reference to the Thodey review (and subsequently Thodey himself noted that his review had not recommended them).


The fatal blow for the review, however, was the release of the government’s response to the review. Some of the review team’s most significant recommendations were not accepted:

  • a recommendation for the government to clarify the public service’s roles and responsibilities
  • a proposal for a legislative code for ministerial advisers
  • a recommendation for a more thorough process for the appointment and termination of secretaries was rejected (not surprising given that Morrison had just unilaterally sacked two secretaries).


Intriguingly, the government’s response to recommendations was said to be based on the Secretaries Board advice with the standard statement: “Consistent with the Secretaries Board’s advice…….”


If the ‘Board’ (an annoying term in itself but we’ll save that for another day in our consideration of the review) did not support these recommendations, it would be good to see the reasons why. Or is it too cynical to suggest that they second-guessed what the government would accept rather than providing the oft-cited frank and fearless advice? It is worth noting that the Board presumably included the two long-standing departmental secretaries who had been removed in the MoG reforms.


Other ‘fluffier’ recommendations were unsurprisingly accepted such as the recommendation that the role of the APS is to provide ‘robust and evidence-based advice to ministers’.  (As an aside, it’s interesting how fluffy recommendations are often deemed acceptable – and a powerful reason why recommendations should be sharp and succinct!)


In short, we think the Thodey review should have been pronounced dead on arrival.


Just for the record, however, in our next newsletter we’ll have a more detailed look at the review and its recommendations just in case it gets resuscitated, as an appendix, in a 19th review of the public service.