Shapcott – Public Administration and the War at Home
Woodrow Wilson is considered by some to be the ‘father of public administration’. In 1887 he was one of the first people to write about it, advocating the separation of politics and administration to achieve efficiency with business-like practices and attitudes toward daily operations, by improving the effectiveness of public service through management and by training civil servants and merit based assessment.
How these concepts were viewed in Western Australia in 1914 is not obvious in the archives. But by using the Premier’s Secretary, Louis Edward Shapcott, as a case study for how a senior public administrator came into his own as a result of the war, we can see through the context of the ‘War’ file, how a period of emergency can give rise to opportunities that can be seized by public administrators. We can also gain a good idea of how they operated during a period like this.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB)’s entry on Shapcott commences with his family background in Victoria, curiously mentioning his Irish born mother, but not his father. According to the ADB he had worked on station properties and as a show-troupe boxer in Victoria before moving to WA where he started as a railway points cleaner. Joining the Department of Mines in 1901 he studied French, elocution, chemistry, shorthand and typing at night school. His rise in the Civil Service was swift and by March 1914 he had become the Secretary to the Premier, a position he held this position until he retired in 1941. A man from an obviously humble background, through determination and intelligence he had reached the heights of the Civil Service in WA. Through sheer hard work and talent he had got there on merit.
The ADB entry states further that “making himself indispensable” to successive WA Premiers Scaddan, Wilson, Lefroy, Colebatch, Mitchell, Collier and Willcock; “there was a saying among public servants that seven Premiers served under Shapcott. One back-bench parliamentarian protested about his power; another retorted that ‘Every Leader of the Opposition has said that, and when he becomes Premier, he has kept that gentleman there’.” This leads us to the only real conclusion that can be drawn; that his effectiveness as a public administrator was seen as fair, impartial and free of politics; three of these Premiers were Labor and four Liberal/Nationalist.
It seems the emergency of the First World War made Shapcott. His touch is all over the ‘War’ file. His assiduous attention to the detail ensuring every piece of correspondence is attended to, reveal his excellent record keeping. His typed transcripts and shorthand marks on the secret messages received in the Premier’s Office show just how much he knew about the conduct of the war. His dealings with other State and Commonwealth Premiers, Ministers, and Prime Ministers, and the upper echelons of the military, all on behalf of the WA Premier, shows his role as a chief communicator and conduit of information about this conflict at home and abroad.
During the war, Shapcott became a commissioner under the Postponement of Debts Act and liaison officer between the army and the State. With Rear Admiral Sir William Clarkson he controlled priority lists of foodstuffs into Western Australia. In November 1918 he organized the Western Australian visit of a French trade mission, led by French war hero General Pau. Shapcott was later appointed officier d’Académie Française. The ADB concludes that “his subordinates admired and respected him, but many feared or disliked him; none questioned his impartial devotion to duty.”
 Wilson, Woodrow. June, 1887. The Study of Administration, Political Science Quarterly 2.