Federal Politics


A good ref can't sit in the stands

I played a soccer match this week and my side lost, albeit valiantly, as it usually does. Yet, afterwards, my team-mates dwelled not on the 0-1 result, nor on our brilliantly executed own goal, but on the match's positive ''vibe''. We agreed, unfortunately, that it was pretty rare.

Most of us see our mid-week league as a chance to have a social kick-around. Yet, as inevitably happens when men play sport, the games at times descend into something akin to warfare, ranging from the odd niggle and push to open abuse or an all-out bout. I'm constantly amused by what otherwise sensible men get up to on a pitch.

But not on Wednesday night. Perhaps our opponents were just good-natured, though I suspect we had the referee to thank. He was friendly and engaged with players throughout the game, yet also made it clear he would brook no breach of the rules. Tackles, pushes or trips that other refs might have let go - and which may have brewed into stoushes - were called as fouls from the start. As a result, we all played cleanly.

Now, it's a little simple to compare a soccer referee with a manager, let alone those who oversee knowledge workers such as public servants. But there are some obvious parallels I couldn't help but notice. A poor ref, for example, fails to outline what he or she expects from players, drifts too far from the play to observe it closely, neither notices nor intervenes when players begin to rile each other and, as a result of uncertainty, makes inconsistent decisions.

At a recent conference, former departmental secretary and diplomat (among other roles) Allan Hawke discussed some of the poorer approaches that public servants regularly take to management.

''Most people get promoted on the basis of how good they were in their previous position. Too often, the result is that managers equate doing their job with being at their desk (often with the door closed) dealing with the in-tray; so busy being super desk officers that they don't have time to manage even themselves or make a qualitative difference. Those who have the nous to practise management by walking around appreciate the importance of serendipity and happenstance to achieving results and employee engagement.''


This notion of the manager as a participant observer of people, rather than of work, is crucial given the growing legal risks (and costs) of perceived bullying. Many people hold the view that workplace harassment typically involves a manager and a member of his or her staff. Yet a national study issued by advisory firm Risk to Business last month found that most bullying takes place between peers: colleagues at the same career level, of the same sex and of a similar age. The report also noted that most harassment ''occurs within the presence of one's peers rather than in front of managers or subordinates''.

Like a good referee, a good manager must be watchful and engaged with staff to notice these problems before they fester. Yet many of the bureaucracy's offices and practices discourage this by reflecting the view that managers are exclusive from other workers and should be separated from them. There are exceptions, but most agencies reward executive level 2 staff with an office; i.e. a wall between them and those they supervise. The offices of branch managers tend to be farther away still, while some buildings even have toilets that are solely for the use of senior executives.

Former senior public servant Stephen Bartos calls this trend the ''edifice complex''. He wrote in 2010: ''I have heard some senior managers complain that they have been embarrassed by the acreage of the offices they occupy, but that they are not allowed to do anything about it because their own department insists on a commonality of standards between officers at the same level.''

There's little point in trying to wish away our longing for status; it's innate (like our propensity to get feisty on a soccer pitch). Yet good managers will be acutely aware of the office that confines them, keeping them distant from the people they need to know.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your confidential tips to aps6@canberratimes.com.au.