The danger of having unqualified bureaucrats

You wouldn’t accept advice on aviation safety from someone who has never worked in that industry.  Nor would you want to get legal advice from someone who isn’t a lawyer.

Yet when it comes to firearms policy, the government gets its advice from bureaucrats who have no qualifications or connection with the industry, and no desire to consult it.

This is the last of THREE blogs in a series about bad behaviour by our bureaucrats.  ON FRIDAY we revealed new regulations being proposed in South Australia which will make life tough for our colleagues there. YESTERDAY we told you what we think is in store for shooters in Victoria in regulations which will come into effect next year.  TODAY we tell you about the problem of having bureaucrats with no qualifications or experience with firearms, in charge of firearms policy, and the risk this presents to the government of getting its policy settings wrong.

If you’re offended ….

Let me preface this by saying that this blog is not aimed at any particular public servant.

Rather, it describes the broader problem that exists within the Victorian Public Service when it comes to dealing with industry related matters.

If any bureaucrats are offended by this, then they should heed the main message here.  All we are after is a better and transparent process relating to the management of policies relating to firearms than we have now.

The way it works

In many cases public servants involved in policy work are employed within the Victorian Public Service (“VPS”) structure which has 6 levels.

Most of the advice is prepared by “principal policy officers” who are employed at the highest VPS level (being 6), which has a salary range of $111k to $149k – plus super.

They’re well paid, so it’s not as though the right people cannot be found.

Life in the VPS

The recruitment of VPS staff comes and goes with government priorities.

Some of them start their climb up the VPS ladder (and a better salary) by taking on new roles in areas where they may have no background or even interest in, such as firearms.

Their skills are normally generic

In the public service, recruitment occurs around “key selection criteria’ which revolve around generic skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively and work under time pressure.

They rarely, if ever, require subject matter expertise.  It’s the opposite in the private sector, where industry specific knowledge and experience are a must.

While this may seem illogical, there can be some merit in it.  It allows for transferability of skills across a number of sectors and is designed to allow our ministers understand and deal with the policy challenges – quickly.

Done properly, VPS staff can do their job effectively if they consult the industries they affect.  A good policy officer will consult.

While there are many good policy officers within the VPS, those who have responsibility for firearm policy, could do it better.

One possible explanation is that the staff in the Department of Justice and Regulation (DOJR) who deal with firearm policy, also deal with a wide range of matters demanding equal or more attention.  There are other possibilities such as biases and prejudices, however the inability to provide a proper policy focus doesn’t help.

The DOJR does convene the Firearms Consultative Committee, but there’s a reason for that: the CFCV got the FCC up and running and helped shape its constitution.

The priority given to the firearms community by DOJR can be seen on its website where it states (in relation to career opportunities):

Opportunities [for work in DOJR] include roles in police and prosecution, the prison and community corrections services, various tribunals and agencies established to protect citizens’ rights, emergency management, emergency services, policy on racing and gaming issues and the provision of legal advice to government

Firearms don’t rate a mention.  Yet we’re a multibillion dollar industry which employs several thousand people with over 200k active participants. It provides services to state and federal government agencies and provides significant health and social benefits to the community.

Sure, we’re not the biggest sector around, but we are heavily regulated and therefore need to be well connected to government: we need the government to reciprocate with a better engagement model than it has now.

While the government has implemented programs which support the shooting sports (such as range funding and the creation of the Game Management Authority), they only come about from lobbying by our sector.

The ironic thing is that there are VPS staff who have helped the shooting community implement these things.   Others even have shooters licences, but they are too few in number to make any difference.

What do VPS staff do?

Among the many things VPS staff do is to help draft many of the things our portfolio ministers say and do.

That’s because ministers are often juggling not only multiple issues within their portfolios, but in some cases multiple portfolios, and a range of matters involving their electorates, parliamentary commitments and political parties. These demands mean that VPS staff need to support them by preparing:

  • cabinet submissions (these are briefs to Cabinet on something important such as new legislation, or options for dealing with some major issue such as a crisis);
  • pre-scripted responses to questions which might be raised in parliament (which the minister’s office might then politicise for the minister to read from);
  • media releases and event briefs, for a media opportunity or other event; and
  • correspondence to sign in response to letters and emails from people like yourself (the responses our Police Minister sent to shooters on the recent lever-action issues are examples: they would have been written by some staffer at 121 Exhibition St)

All these things affect shooters because the advice of these VPS staff often influence or determine the ‘official’ position taken on an issue by the government.

Yet, as any shooter will tell you, the information the government puts out is often lacks detail or is generally lacking any genuine commitment to consultation.

“Regulatory capture”

DOJR’s role is to provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice to its ministers.  The underlying assumption is that that advice is properly informed.

DOJR’s relationship with Victoria Police has, for many years, been inappropriately close.  This is because regulators are meant to operate at arm’s length from government to ensure their independence, but this isn’t the case with Victoria Police.  While they play an important role and need to work with DOJR, it cannot be to the exclusion of other stakeholders.

Relying on a regulator’s view – to the exclusion of everyone else – means the advice provided by the department has not been tested for accuracy. It puts the minister in a dangerous situation.

The term ‘regulatory capture’ is an old and well-known problem in public policy.  In Tech Liberation post from 2010, Adam Theirer stated:

“Regulatory capture” occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies — regulatory agencies, in particular — to further their own ends.

Regulatory agencies like Victoria Police.

Here’s an example.   During 2016 the Victoria Police told the media it developed ‘recommendations’ for changes to our firearm laws. These recommendations went to the then minister who said was working through them.

Even to this day, nothing of this has been shared with the shooting community. We’ve been deliberately excluded from this process even though it affects us directly

That’s good for no-one. It compromises the integrity of the advice being provided to the minister – and we end up paying the price.

The following two quotes from David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia are ones our ministers and bureaucrats could do well to practice:

The benefits of good consultation are well documented.  If you listen to the people who matter, you are more likely to develop effective strategies that both work better and can be sustained over time.

Unfortunately the term consultation has been progressively bastardised by an ongoing series of predetermined, closed option, pseudo-neo-quasi engagement strategies designed almost exclusively to satisfy a symbolic process requirement.  This approach adopts a simple method: consult – then do exactly what you were going to do before you consulted with one or two minor concessions.  


If we want better government, better policies, better programs and services, we need to move beyond the technocrat knows best approach and engage in consultation that moves beyond the standard … tick the box process.

To summarise…

Our VPS staff play an important role in the policy making cycle and are well paid.

The fact many of them lack any qualification or experience in firearm can be made up through effective consultation – but we’re not seeing that happen in firearms policy.  While there may be other explanations, it could simply be due to a lack of priority afforded by government.

What is clear is that there is a lack of qualified VPS staff who advise in firearms policy.  Whether they should have better connection with the shooting industry or be licensed shooters themselves, the simple fact is the Victorian Public Service has a recruitment problem.

This runs the risk of our portfolio minister receiving advice which is, at best, incomplete.

That’s why the CFCV will develop realistic proposals for reform of our policy processes for the major parties to consider in the lead up to the 2018 Victorian State Election.

  1. A very interesting and well informed piece Neil. I wish we had an organisation such as the CFCV in NSW.

  2. Dr Malcolm McKay

    As a representative of arms collectors who has for many years represented their interests at state and federal level I find myself in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed in this article. I have been saying the same things in meetings with our bureaucrats for a long time.

    It fills me with frustration to see decisions made that conveniently sideline advice from people and organizations whose expertise is gained from years of involvement for the sake of “easy” solutions that pander to the popular misconceptions fostered by the media and highly visible yet quite small fringe elements who have no understanding of firearms nor involvement in the many aspects of our sport and hobby.

    Again and again these small groups claim a virtue of not being gun owners and then use that rather nebulous qualification to support their attacks on gun owners while ironically freely admitting to having no involvement with firearms at any practical level. It is a woeful situation that allows ignorance of the subject to overwhelm sensible and informed advice.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial

Like this blog? Please spread the word :)