A crash-through introduction to Immigration

When I accepted the invitation to transfer to the ethnic affairs area of the Department of Immigration, I had great hopes of making a sufficient contribution to policy through my own settlement experiences, my relatively extensive contact with migrants in my early years in Australia, and my work experience in policy, research and administration.

… … After about a week of boredom, which left me wondering what I would need to do to find interesting work, a senior officer came to see me. He had been delegated by the head of the agency to ask if I would like the responsibility for implementing the scheme of charging for services; since I came from Finance, I must know about money and machines. I replied that I came from Treasury, which knew nothing about money, machines, or anything else in the real world. But I would consider overnight whether I was competent to take on the job. The next day I said that I would, only to have him reply, “Don’t be a bloody fool.”

I asked why, and he said that the central policy area, which was responsible, had refused to implement an “immoral” policy, and so they had wasted nearly a whole month, leaving a little less than ten weeks or so to the crunch date.
… … Anyway, on day two, I presented a tentative approach, with staffing and briefing requirements, a timetable, and consultations with regulatory agencies.

The next day, I had an officer with experience on staffing matters, and another with accounting and audit experience. Someone in that agency was clever; the three of us were alike in our approach – we wanted and obtained full autonomy under clear guidelines, and it became clear within a week that we would, if necessary, bend any rule, but without breaking it. We were some team – Irish-Aussie, Maltese-English, and me. We loved everybody – but please do not get in our way.

We were not going to fail, especially through some moralising incompetent receiving more money than we did. My detailed plan of action, which looked impossible, was approved by the Executive, subject to weekly reports on progress and approvals for the next bout of actions by my team. We were briefed on immigration procedures (none of us knew anything about the subject). We obtained approval from relevant agencies about purchasing (on a truncated tender basis) the necessary machines; we had them modified and installed with necessary security; staff were appointed and trained; and instructions were issued to all overseas posts.

We even consulted the Audit Office, which normally examined departmental practices after a year of operation. When they demurred at a before-installation assessment, we told them that, were they to find fault later, our Minister would remind their Minister about their lack of co-operation in avoiding mistakes at the initial stage. It was wonderful how one could make most public servants jump, but not necessarily with joy, just by whispering the word ‘Minister’. As happens so often, many who are not responsible are in positions of responsibility.

Then the gremlins took over. The legal people said that the Attorney-General would need many weeks to draft regulations. I was curious as to why this task had not been set in train earlier. My chief took me to the Minister to explain why the implementation date could not be met. The Minister (whom I had met elsewhere) stood up, looked down on his senior adviser and said, “I do not mind if public servants work all night and every night, but you will meet the implementation date. Am I clear?” It was beautiful.

Three days later I was stopped outside his door by our acting chief of legal matters. His office’s role was to refer legal questions to the A-G. He gave me the draft regulations for my approval. What a surprising show of efficiency. I then made an enemy for life by examining them on the spot, in his room, and, much to his surprise, initialling and approving them, saying, “Ask the A-G’s Office to implement immediately.” This they did.

On crunch day, every office took money and there were no problems of an administrative nature. My team was flatteringly commended by the head of the agency. I suspect that he was quite aware of our crash-through approach.
This led him to ask me if I could help by taking a job in Melbourne. I was to be there for a short while only, and I would be promoted on my return. His deputy was party to this promise. Whacko, I thought! I would at last be entering the senior executive service permanently. Dream on, Daddyo!

(While these extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ may suggest that I had little respect for the way public servants operate, it has to be said that there is a discernible difference between the private sector and the public sector, especially among senior managers. Those in the private sector have clear targets contributing to profitability or growth to meet all the time, whereas only parts of the public sector had to meet deadlines; but where were the measures of efficiency for the latter?

Mainly through my work on promotion appeals committees (PACs), which covered for a number of years the whole public sector in the national capital, I became aware of significant differences in the quality of managers between agencies. Perhaps I was also influenced by the reality that a few colleagues I had passed over through my promotions had left for lesser agencies, and risen two steps above me.

But I was more aware of the undocumented assessments of competence by some senior public agency managers which did not meet the requirements of natural justice. But there seemed to be no one to evaluate the competence of these senior managers. Three PACs found top managers who claimed to be ‘too busy’ to examine policy issues.)