Is the Higher Public Service a Profession

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Professionalisation in the public services is regarded as essential but the concept is ambiguous and organisationally weak. Moreover, if not jeopardised by managerialism, public service professionalisation today faces some major barriers or
  RESEARCH EVALUATION Is the Higher Public Service a Profession? Craig Matheson Charles Stud University zyxwvutsr Professionalisation in the public services is regarded as essential but the concept is ambiguous and organisationally weak. Moreover; zyx f not jeopardised by managerialism public service professionalisation today faces some major barriers or limitations. Nonetheless the public service may be able to maintain greater professional status with increased emphasis on job security occupational closure and horizontal organisation. The prospects for such conditions may now seem remote but with this criteria in mind Australia will neglect the professionalism of its public service very much to its cost. zy In this article, I wish to explore the question of whether the senior levels of the Australian public service APS) constitute a profession. Although this question has been previously addressed by many writers including Crisp 1969), Spann 1979:339), Curnow 1989), Bailey ( 1989), Fisher (1 990) and Hyslop (1 99 1) there are three reasons why it warrants a re- examination. The first is that there is no consensus on this issue. The position taken by Crisp, Spann, Curnow and Fisher is either that the public service is not a full profession or that it is one in only a limited sense. While these writers concede that the public service possesses professional standards of conduct and professional expertise, they also note that the public service lacks most of the traditional attributes of a profession. These include an independent qualifying association which regulates entry, regulation by means of peer review, professional autonomy and standard requirements of prior education and training which confer peculiar and indispensable qualifications. Crisp (1 969:4) concludes that:‘higher public administration is currently, and doubtless must at best to some extent remain, a peculiar, even irregular “profession”’. Auslrelian Journal dPuWk Administrafiw zyxwvutsrq 7 3): 15-27, September 1998 Other writers take a different position on this issue. For example, Bailey 1989:223) believes that ‘the public service now contains within itself a group which could and should be identified as a profession’. He maintains that this zyxw s the case because senior public servants possess specialised knowledge, professional ethics and a sense of public service. Hyslop 1991) also believes that the higher public service constitutes a profession by virtue of its possession of a code of ethics and expert knowledge. Uhr 1988:lll) likewise sees the career civil service as a ‘profession in government’ which he contrasts with ‘the inflated pretence of many of the newer professionalisms, such as the real estate or automotive sales professions’. The second reason why this issue warrants a re-examination lies in the fact that previous examinations of this topic have drawn to only a limited degree upon the sociological study of professions. This is an unfortunate oversight, for the study of the professions lies squarely within the domain of sociology rather than political science. Although Crisp drew on the classic study of the professions by Carr- Saunders published in 1933, there has been a 8 National Council of the Institute of Public Administration, Australia 1998 Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road. Oxford OX4 1JF. UK. and 350 Main Street, Malden 02148, USA.  16 zyxwvutsr atheson great deal of work on the professions conducted since that time. Furthermore, the answer to this question that writers provide depends largely upon how they define a profession. Those who believe that a profession must possess its own independent qualifying association, peer review and formal training tend to answer in the negative whereas those who believe that the essence of professionalism lies in adherence to standards of professional conduct and the pursuit of ideals of public service tend to answer in the affirmative. If we are to arrive at a definitive answer to this question, we need to have soundly based general criteria by means of which we can distinguish a profession from other occupations. A third reason for re-examining this question lies in the fact that many of those who believe that the higher public service constitutes a profession have seen in the loss of security of tenure for departmental secretaries and the abolition of the Public Service Board the demise of public service professionalism. Uhr 1990:27 l), for example, maintains that managerialism ‘produces a demand for a new model public servant more closely attuned to the narrower wishes of the government of the day than to the broader requirements of those phantom consciences associated with good governance, social ustice or the public interest’. Nethercote 1993:21) has lamented the passing of the ‘mighty barons of the past’ and claims that security of tenure among departmental secretaries was the foundation of public administration professionalism. Wettenhall cited in Ayres 1996:4) similarly believes that senior public servants of the postwar years ‘were not of the current frame of mind, where they thought they were simply implementing notions that were handed down’. For managerialists such as Keating cited in Ayres 1996:6), by contrast, such changes do not constitute an erosion of professionalism, since senior bureaucrats do not serve a public interest that is separate from that which is defined by the government of the day. To understand why the higher public service has been widely considered to be a profession, we need to examine the historical srcins of the APS. This is because the APS was modelled on the British civil service, the elite of which was expressly intended to embody professional attributes. In the words of the Northcote- Trevelyan report, the civil service elite would consist of ‘an efficient body of officers, occupying a position duly subordinate to that of ministers zyx .. yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability, and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent, influence, those who are from time to time set over them’ cited in Nethercote 1993:24). In this conception, the higher public service constitutes an autonomous force in government which acts as a guardian of constitutional proprieties or of the public interest rather than simply as the instrument of the government of the day see Uhr 199 1). Senior public servants in this model act to uphold constitutional conventions and are politically neutral rather than the creatures of a political party. For this reason, they have enjoyed security of tenure see Jackson 1988:241). In this respect, they resemble other professionals in being self- regulating and autonomous. The independence of the public service is also secured by independent non-political control of recruitment and the conditions of employment. These features are traditionally associated with the idea of a merit or career civil service see Parker 1989b). Public service professionalism then is seen to reside primarily in the political neutrality of the public service. zy s Uhr (1988: 1 11) notes, when we use the term ‘politicisation’ we are referring to a loss of professionalism. For many writers then, the higher public service constitutes a profession because it possesses a degree of autonomy, expert knowledge, ideals of public service and a code of professional ethics. In all of these respects the higher public service resembles the ‘learned professions’ such as law and medicine. By contrast, other writers see the public service as being a profession in at best a limited sense, since it lacks such key attributes as an independent qualifying association, formal training and accreditation and regulation by means of peer review. Opinion is also divided on the question of whether public service professionalism has been jeopardised by the managerialist reforms undertaken since the mid- 1980s. In this article my primary intention is to determine if the higher public service constitutes a profession. Once this question has been answered, it will be possible to provide an answer to the secondary question of whether the professional status of the public service has been Q National Council of lhe Institute of Public Administration. Australia 1998  Is the Higher Public zyxwvu ervice a Profession? zyxw 7 z jeopardised by the managerialist reforms. There are three broad approaches to defining a profession within sociology Lansbury 19783). The first is the ‘trait’approach n which a profession is defined in terms of its possession of a set of characteristics or traits such as intellectual training, specialised knowledge, self-organisation and a code of ethics. The second approach is the institutional one. Here a profession is defined in terms of a process of institutional or associational development in the course of which the profession emerges. This process involves such stages zyxwv s the creation of a professional association, the establishment of formal training, political agitation towards the protection of the association by law and the adoption of a formal code of ethics. The third approach is the legalistic one. Here, a profession is defined in terms of its recognition of its status by the state. This involves registration, certification and licensing which permits the professional association to exercise monopoly control over entry and practice. In this article I will rely upon the definition of a profession provided by the sociologist Randall Collins 1988:483). His definition synthesises he three aforementioned approaches and incorporates those elements which sociologists generally identify as being the key attributes of a profession. These include formal training, accreditation, occupational closure, ethics and horizontal structure. Collins maintains that a profession is an occupational group that has succeeded in acquiring an organisational structure of its own, independently of whatever other organisations its members happen to work in. Here, hiring and career progression depend on peer group approval rather than on the approval of hierarchical superiors. The most strongly organised professions are those in which the peer group not only staffs its own training institutes but has acquired the power as gatekeeper for entry into monopolistic licensing, enforced by the state, for the exercise of that occupation. Collins maintains that the occupations which are most successful in attaining this horizontal professional structure are those whose activities involve the highest degree of uncertainty, such as areas of creativity scientific research), anxiety -c harged bodily ail men ts medicine) or complex conflicts and negotiations law). Hierarchic controls are difficult to use in these zyxwvutsr ational Council of Re Institute of Public Administration, Australia 1998 circumstances and employers need to give considerable autonomy to practitioners. The high degree of power exercised by practitioners creates the potential for distrust among clients and employers, since they cannot evaluate whether the services they are receiving are as good as expected. The practitioners put up a united front in the face of this distrust, undertaking collectively to guarantee the validity of each individual practitioner by means of peer review. If we view professions in this way, we can synthesise the trait, institutional and legalistic approaches. A profession typically possesses certain traits because of the nature of its tasks, the horizontal organisational structure which it assumes and the measures which it takes to win the trust of clients. For example, professional work typically requires practitioners to possess expert knowledge which has been acquired by means of formal training. Their expertise is certified by a professional association which often enjoys the power of monopolistic licensing guaranteed by the state. Codes of ethics stress altruistic ideals of public service because of the potential for distrust by users of services. Systems of sanctions are also needed to discipline errant practitioners. Since the profession has its own organisational structure, it tends to form an occupational community with its own professional culture or ethos. Professionals enjoy a high level of autonomy and freedom from hierarchical control since the imposition of such controls would limit their initiative and creativity. It is assumed that the quality of their work can only be judged by fellow professionals. A profession has usually emerged through a process in which it gains control over entry and licensing of practitioners. In Weberian terms, this constitutes a type of social or occupational closure in which the occupation strengthens its market position by excluding non-members from practice. In order to determine if an occupation constitutes a profession, we therefore need to examine the kind of tasks which its members perform, the type of training which they have undergone and the qualifications which they possess, the degree of autonomy which they enjoy, the degree of horizontal structure which the occupation possesses, the extent of monopoly control over entry and practice which it exercises and its professional ethos and ethics.  18 zyxwvusr atheson z Work Tasks and Qualifications A profession is typically characterised by the performance of complex tasks which involve situations of uncertainty and anxiety. These tasks require the exercise of expert judgment which is based on specialised knowledge acquired by means of formal training. Senior administrators resemble professionals nasmuch as they perform relatively complex tasks that require specialist expertise. Pusey zyxwv   199 1 7 1) found, for example, that the SES wanted to stress the ‘intellectual’ character of their work. This is reflected in the much higher rating that a sample of SES officers gave to ‘conceptual and analytical skills’ as requirements of their work when compared to a sample of private sector chief executive officers (Jans and Frazer-Jans 1991:342). Studies of the higher civil service in various countries have shown that while its work does not require detailed knowledge of a particular scientific discipline, its members are nonetheless usually experts in a particular subject area inasmuch as they ‘know the “territory”, he laws, the interested power centres and what has worked or failed and why’ (Rosen, cited in Page 1985:25,29). While their work is intellectually complex, it does not necessitate formal training in a body of theoretical knowledge. The only administrators who require such training are those employed in professional classifications and highly qualified specialists such as research economists or information technology officers. The difference between the skill requirements of such specialist work and those of mainstream administrative work has been acknowledged with the creation of a separate specialist category within the SES (Ives 1991 483). The knowledge possessed by generalist administrators is pragmatic rather than theoretical and is acquired on-the-job rather than through formal training (see Crisp 1969:7). For example, the MABMIAC zyxwv 1 992:40) found that on-the-job raining was regarded as effective by 76 percent of staff. What administrators require is not theoretical knowledge but ‘judgment’ or the capacity to make correct decisions. For example, Treasury officers argue that the work requires, ‘judgment or feel, rather than academic qualifications’ (Weller and Cutt 1976:36-7). One study has likewise reported that:‘Most experienced SES officers would agree that zyx   ational Council of Ihe InsStute of Public Administration, Australia 1998 effective udgment is the linchpin of a successful SES career’ (Ives 1991:481). ‘Judgment’ is defined by Argyle (197256) as ‘the capacity to make realistic assessments of practical situations, and produce workable solutions to particular problems where it is more a matter of weighing different factors and guessing probabilities than of applying logical principles’. As many have noted, the criteria for judging the ‘rightness’ of decisions made at the senior levels of government are ambiguous and not reducible to logical formulae. Gellner (1988:210) maintains that it is difficult to assess big decisions at the top of organisations since issues are complex and incommensurable. Assessments of success must therefore remain essentially intuitive rather than rational. Consequently, administration is more like a craft which is mastered through practice rather than an exact science. For example, ’judgment’ is something which is learnt on-the-job through actually making decisions or observing those who make them rather than through academic study (Davies 1980:82; Sisson 1959:35-7; Hyslop 1993: 134; Crisp 1969: 1 3). Walter (1986:158) likewise suggests that efficacy in senior APS administrative roles depends less on prior knowledge and skills than on institutional acculturation. In addition to judgment, SES officers require corporate management skills, representation and interpersonal skills, leadership skills and conceptual and analytical skills (Ives 199 1 480). These skills are all ‘cross- contextual’ inasmuch as they do not presuppose knowledge of any particular discipline. In this respect, senior public servants differ from professionals such as medical and legal practitioners whose work requires mastery of a body of theoretical knowledge. As Collins (1975:342) notes, it is the presence of arelatively definite and teachable skill that permits professions to control training and entry to the profession. Notwithstanding this fact, it is possible for civil services to insist that entrants possess specific formal qualifications, as in many continental European countries. Although the British higher civil service does not stipulate a particular qualification as an entry requirement, in practice it has traditionally recruited Oxbridge-educated generalists. Within Australia, neither the continental nor the British model has been followed. The APS from its inception has sought to maximise access to   s zyxwvutsrqpon he Higher Public Service a Profession? zyxwv 9 entry positions by not imposing credential requirements upon recruits. As a result, its senior ranks were often filled by the non-tertiary educated. In practice, tertiary qualifications are now necessary to obtain promotion to the zyxwv ES, but there are no prescribed qualifications which all public servants must acquire zyxwv s a precondition of entry or advancement. Consequently, he APS lacks one of the key attributes of a profession, namely, the exercise of control over entry by means of the training and certification of recruits. As Curnow 1989:28) has observed, in the case of the higher public service there is no independent qualifying association which regulates entry into the profession and disciplines its members. Nonetheless, an analogue to professional closure can be found in the preference which has been accorded to economists in recruitment and promotion within the APS since the Second World War. zyxw s Pusey 1 991 zyxwvut   154) has noted, central agency economists use the promotion system to promote more of their own kind. The same process occurs in line departments. Campbell and Halligan 1992:183-4) report that policy specialists in SES positions in line departments have been displaced by central agency economists. This is reflected in the fact that 25 percent of the graduates employed in the APS have majored in economics and that 38 percent of SES officers possess economics degrees Pusey 1991:278; Gregory 1997:90). Possession of an economics degree has formed the basis for a process of occupational closure analogous to that exercised by professions. For example, of the 250 policy advising staff in the Treasury, 95 percent have a degree in economics while the remainder have degrees in disciplines related to economics Submission No. 95 to JCPA 1993: 1 . Although economics qualifications may be stipulated as selection criteria, they are not of much relevance to policy and administrative work. Petridis I 98 :249, 259) reports senior officers as observing that an economics degree was not of much use in administrative work or in preparing policy submissions, but valuable in research work and the analysis of problems. Even senior officers with economics qualifications admit though that what makes an economics degree valuable is less the specific knowledge acquired during university training than the analytical skills which such training bestows. This illustrates 0 National Council of the Institute of Public Administration, Australia 1998 the fact that the skills needed in administrative work are primarily acquired on-the-job rather than by means of formal training. Horizontal Organisation In addition to requiring the exercise of expert judgment, a profession will usually possess a form of horizontal organisation involving control by means of peer review. Collins 1988:483) maintains that a profession is essentially an occupational group that has acquired an organisational structure of its own which exists independently of whatever other organisations ts members happen to be working in. Accordingly, careers in a profession depend on a reputation acquired in specialised groups and on the recommendations of peers rather than on the judgment of hierarchical superiors. In this respect the higher public service does not resemble a profession, since promotion depends upon judgments made by superiors rather than on the recommendation of peers. The fact that the APS is a ‘unified service’ possessing a single internal labour market provides it with a degree of horizontal organisation. Furthermore, the fact that access to jobs located above the entry position has traditionally been restricted to ‘insiders’ has represented a form of social closure analogous to that exercised by professional associations. In practice, however, a unified service has existed only in theory, since internal labour markets centred on individual departments or agencies have emerged. For example, over three-quarters of third-division officers appointed between I962 and 1974 were in the latter year still in the department that they had first joined Spann 1979:329). Again, half of a sample of SES officers surveyed in 1989 had experience in only one department SSCFPA 1990:33). As Goodsell 1990:347) notes, Australian public servants see themselves as working for the government or for a particular department or jurisdiction, not as members of an ‘Australian public service’ per se. A profession is usually organised in the form of a professional association which licenses, certifies and regulates practitioners. An analogue to this existed within the APS until 1987 in the form of the Public Service Board, since this was an autonomous statutory body which controlled entry to the APS and administered norms of official conduct. As the
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