• Prime Minister and Cabinet;
  • policy;
  • advice

For the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) the year 1987 can now be seen as pivotal in marking a clear end to a period of transition in coordinating structures in the Australian Public Service (APS) that had lasted roughly 20 years. The abolition in 1987 of the Public Service Board, formerly a powerful coordinating agency, is the most obvious marker of the change. The PSB's departure left the Secretary of PM&C with a role that is now often described as ‘head of the public service’. More broadly, the 1987 changes to the machinery of government both formalised and enabled a sea-change in PM&C's role. Before 1987 a large policy initiation and development project would usually have been considered as beyond PM&C's scope. Since then, extensive and direct policy development work by PM&C has become common. The continuing debates have been over whether PM&C actually delivers in these roles (an empirical question) and how far it should play them (a normative issue). In this article we itemise the capacity, both continuing and developing, which PM&C has to support policy development. Traditional coordination mechanisms are an important part of this armoury and PM&C has long experience of most of them. However policy initiation and development calls for other tools which PM&C has had to develop over the past few decades. There is scope for conflict between the coordination and initiation/development roles. Understanding how a central agency like PM&C carries out each of them and balances the two can potentially contribute to debates on organisational design.

We also address the normative issue: whether the growth of prime ministerial impact is a result of an increase in public service support or a cause of its increase (Walter and Strangio 2007) and whether it should be restrained. We accept that the new developments give prime ministers the capacity to oversee policy arenas where once they could not, but regard this as a consequence as much of demand from above as of ambition within the department.