From the early 1940s to the mid-1970s the range of government activities and the size of the public services in Australia have consistently increased. In the first two years of the Whitlam government the growth in the size of the federal public service accelerated dramatically, but economic problems in 1975 and the advent of the Eraser government brought this to a halt. The sudden halt was not caused solely by a change of ministry: it also indicated a change of mood created by a long debate on the proper and practicable roles of government in social and economic life. Even before the change from Whitlam to Eraser, there had been widespread questioning of the functions, responsibilities and effectiveness of the federal and state public services in Australia.
The establishment of a wave of public service inquiries within the last five years was one significant symbol of this broad questioning. These inquiries included the Bland board of inquiry in Victoria (1973-75), the Corbett committee in South Australia (1973-75), a ministerial inquiry into machinery of government in New South Wales (1974) and, at the federal level, the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (RCAGA) chaired by Dr H.C. Coombs (1974-76).' On taking office, the Eraser government set up the Administrative Review Committee chaired by Sir Henry Bland. In New South Wales the Wran Labor government appointed Professor Peter Wilenski early in 1977 to inquire into state government administration yet again.
Public service inquiries have a long history in Australia, but the most recent group came after a noticeable gap. The Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration was the first wide-ranging inquiry into the federal public service since the McLachlan commission in 1919^ and the economies commission in 1919-20.' In the intervening period there were two other committees of inquiry—the Bailey committee in 1944" and the Boyer committee in 1958^—but their terms of reference were limited to personnel policy. The situation was similar in the states. The recent Australian inquiries followed a number of prominent inquiries in comparable countries—McCarthy in New Zealand, Glassco in Canada, Devlin in Eire, Fulton in the United Kingdom and Cronyn in Ontario. In all of these cases, whatever the action taken by governments, the reports themselves have provoked an extensive literature and provided information and cognitive maps for others wishing to explore the services they examined. At the very least they have become convenient mile posts—people refer, for example, to the post-Glassco and post-Fulton periods.
The essays in this volume examine the three state inquiries completed—in South Australia and Victoria, and the ministerial review in New South Wales—and RCAGA. Our interests are twofold. First, we are concerned with examining the reports themselves. The essays present a set of textual reviews which put the recommendations of the reports in the context of broader debates about the topics they discuss. Second, we are interested in the mechanics of the inquiries—that is, how they were set up, run and implemented. Thus the chapters on the state inquiries and eight of the chapters on RCAGA are concerned with the contents of the reports themselves. The state chapters also discuss the background to the reports. The chapters by Hawker and Schaffer view the activities of RCAGA from the inside, focusing on operational problems and the chapters by Matthews and Chapman examine problems of implementation, generally in the latter case and with specific reference to RCAGA in the former.
We cannot claim our coverage is exhaustive. In particular, since most of the reports were only published within the last two or three years, it is still too early to judge their final effects. Even though governments may praise reports loudly and claim to put their recommendations into effect, some of their more important results may occur through a process that is more akin to seepage than to the clear making of intended changes. If some of the standard jokes about the fate of committees have any truth in them—for example, that a unanimous report takes fifteen years to implement and that thirty years will elapse before some of the proposals of a divided committee take effect—then final comments may be a long time coming. The essays presented here can then be regarded as contributions to what may well be a continuing discussion…..