Business council urges radical bureaucracy overhaul

The head of one of Australia's leading business groups has called for a radical overhaul of the way governments are run at the top.

Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia says political gatekeepers have eroded the role of the public service.

She says a "culture of reticence" has affected the quality of public policy.

"The kind of custodianship of the long-term policy agenda, I think, has been eroded by what I'd call short-term thinking," she told PM.

"I sense frustration in every part of the public service, from the highest to the lowest level." Ms Westacott says she hears complaints from business about not being able to plan for the long term.

"[They're frustrated] that they're at the beck and call of short-term requests from ministers' offices [and] that their advice is second-guessed by political advisors," she said.

"They don't feel that they've got the authority and respect and legitimacy that they once would have had to give governments advice on the long-term direction of the country." Her solution is to halve the staff of Government ministers and give the nation's top bureaucrats back their permanent tenure.

"The numbers in ministerial offices have grown considerably over the decades.

We now have more advisors per minister than many other comparable countries," she said.

"The more people there are in ministers' offices, the more likely they are to want to second-guess policy work and redo things from the public service.

Ms Westacott has also called for a comprehensive audit to decide how far to cut the public sector.

"What we're calling for is an audit on the scope and size of government, and that would include the states as well," she said.

"In my view, it has to be a smaller public service as we go forward.

"We need to be saying, 'Look, what are the roles that people are playing? What are the things they're doing, are those things adding value? Could we get more productivity, could we do them more efficiently? Could we use technology better?' "Those are the questions.

They get you the numbers."

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