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How public servants can develop their astuteness to help them work with ministers

1 March 2021

News and media


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Good public servants must maintain their neutrality and commitment to the public interest while assisting an elected government implement a political agenda.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this complex environment even more complex and public sector leaders now need to develop an even higher level of political astuteness to balance these demands and be effective.

ANZSOG’s Future Public Sector Leaders (FPSL) series brought together former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett, Monash University Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner and former Productivity Commission head Peter Harris for an interactive online Masterclass to discuss the political astuteness and other qualities public servants require to navigate issues, relationships and situations with sensitivity to the political context and priorities. The masterclass was led by Ben Hubbard, former chief-of-staff to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Future Public Sector Leaders’ began in 2020 as part of ANZSOG’s response to COVID-19 with the aim of inspiring and educating the public sector leaders of the future, through short, ‘choose-your-own adventure’ sessions designed to minimise the impact on work/life commitments.

The key to political astuteness – understanding your role

The panel agreed that to be an effective public servant it was vital to be aware of how your work fit into the broader policy and political landscape.

Professor Gardner said that the key to political astuteness for public servants was doing enough research and having enough understanding of their circumstances to understand where their work and advice fitted in with the priorities of the government.

“You’re not there to elect them, or un-elect them, but to understand where their agenda fits into the capabilities of where you operate, and still enable the public interest to be served through your advice.”

Mr Harris said that ‘awareness is the key’.

“That is awareness of your role, and of their role. The ‘they’ in this case is the politician and their advisers, and we are pretty poor at outlining how these fit together,” he said.

“There should be a code of conduct to at least let public servants know what ministers’ offices should be doing, even if they don’t do it.”

He said that astute public servants tried to find out why politicians wanted to do things and determine what they really wanted to do, which was not always the same as what they were elected to do.

“Your capability in exercising political astuteness is to find out why they want to do it – this way you may be able to perform your role in supporting the public interest. Your knowledge of the ‘why’ is the bridge between your knowledge of the public interest and their political agenda.”

Mr Bartlett said that it was important for public servants to understand both how politics constrained what could be done in terms of policy, as well as the narrative that elected governments were trying to tell the public and see where their work fitted into that.

“Every new or returned government comes in with a narrative, and you need to understand where your work fits in to that,” he said.

“What ministers value is the ability to keep building their story. Ministers want to understand, not just the details, but how this will affect people’s lives and want the stories to tell.”

He said that governments went through phases – from the euphoria of winning an election, through crisis management, focus on delivery and listening to the electorate – and that understanding of what phase a government was in, was an important part of astuteness.

“There are some parts of the cycle where I’ll be interested in public policy innovation and other times when I won’t.”

Mr Bartlett said it was important for public servants to try and understand where individual ministers were coming from.

“Every minister leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind them. Some of them are empty vessels and the crumbs are just what people told them to say, but others want to achieve something, and have left a trail in speeches and media releases about what they want to do.”

Government interest versus the public interest

The line between public interest and the interests of the government-of-the-day is hard to draw, and the panel discussed the responsibilities of public servants and how they should act to ethically advance an elected government’s agenda.

Professor Gardner said that the idea of the public interest was ‘the world’s fuzziest topic’ and that governments often claimed mandates that were not consistent with the public interest.

“A public servant should be a really good source of evidence, particularly that which allowed ministers to explain the ‘why’ of what they were doing,” she said.

“The quality of your evidence and your ability to communicate it in different ways – succinctly and quickly – is vital.”

“The person who gives you a fair and accurate read is valued in a lot of contexts, and it is a fundamental capability of being politically astute. If you don’t know your stuff, you can’t do multiple ways of doing things.”

Mr Bartlett said that good departmental secretaries understood what governments wanted to achieve and worked to deepen the public policy to achieve it. He said some departments he had worked with had moved resources around to focus on his priorities and worked to build a sense of trust.

“One key role of public service is to help ministers understand what their role is, because many of the newer ones do not know,” he said.

Mr Harris said bluntly that the things ministers were required to deliver were not necessarily in the public interest and that public servants needed to recognise their role as protectors of the public interest.

He talked about the delicate balance between building channels of communication and trust but remembering ‘you are not the ministerial adviser’s best friend.’

Mr Harris recommended that public servants who wanted to understand how a ministerial office worked should do a short stint – two years preferably with an election – as a Department Liaison Officer.

“But do it relatively early in your career – you don’t want to do it later in career when you are competing for jobs where you are interacting with the minister. “

How to give advice and assist ministers

One of the core roles of the public service has been to deliver frank and fearless advice to ministers, but how can public servants ensure their advice is listened to and taken seriously, even if governments end up going against it?

Mr Bartlett said that as a minister he had wanted public servants around the table when decisions were being debated and quoted former Commonwealth Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner as saying that what he desperately wanted was ‘frank and fearless advice from a reliable person. But I want it before I make a decision, after that it is not needed.”

Mr Harris said that a public servant’s job was to be clear with advice but ‘once you have been clear your job is to take the political decision that has been made and implement. You’ll be comfortable knowing that you did tell the minister.”

Speaking of his time as a former private secretary to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Mr Harris said that Mr Hawke’s view was that public servants should ‘tell me the facts and the balance of advantage and disadvantage and I will add the politics’.

He said that ministers wanted to have confidence they could discuss the content of a brief with its writers.

“You need to be able to do this without it being a regurgitation of your brief, because if you can’t, you won’t be called in for debate, your advice will simply be noted. You can’t force your way in, you have to be invited but sometimes the oral way is a better way of briefing ministers.”

Professor Gardner said that ministers became leaders of large and complex organisations, and that the public sector needed to be more proactive in assisting ministers through that process if they wanted their advice to be valued.

“People don’t naturally know how these things work, it is a difficult job and it falls on the public sector to take them through what a large complex organisation can do for you, what expertise is in there. Because in the end they go to who they trust, and the bigger the minister’s office the less likely they are to go the department regardless of its expertise.”

Is policy debate dead?

The panel was pessimistic about the quality of policy debate in Australia, and the chance of the public service being able to improve it.

Mr Bartlett said that policy debate as many levels was ‘busted’.

“We cannot have a policy debate without it becoming political. The last genuine policy debate in Australia was the GST, and the massive over-dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s frontpages in our media is a major factor.

“The Rudd mining tax never saw a debate in the national press, I knew Gina Hancock hated it but I never knew what it was.”

Mr Harris said that the mining tax had come out of Ken Henry’s Tax Review published in 2010, and that such comprehensive reviews were bad for policy.

“With that kind of review governments have to get into the‘will you rule this out’ game, which has bad consequences for policy debate.”

Wrapping up the debate, Professor Gardner said that Australia’s successful response to COVID-19 had shown that it was possible for governments to produce successful policy with a high level of consensus.

“We are about to be vaccinated, and what we actually got was much heavier reliance on experts and evidence, the outlining of what were unpalatable policy decisions that significant minorities of people were against. Despite that compliance was very high with a high level of consensus. If that doesn’t make you optimistic, you don’t have much optimism left.”

Future Public Sector Leaders will continue through March and April with sessions on Designing and Delivering: the keys to how the public service works. These include sessions on innovation with Governance Lab director Beth Noveck and Monash University’s Professor Rod Glover; systems thinking with Dr Nick Fleming; empowering citizens through policy design with Dr Jo Cribb; and data-driven policy with Dr Zina O’Leary. For more information on how to be part of Future public sector leaders click here.

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