National

Department of Foreign Affairs rookies told to reject grandiose image

Public servants at the Department of Foreign Affairs have been warned not to think of themselves as too special among their fellow bureaucrats.

Department of Foreign Affairs boss Peter Varghese reminds staff they are public servants.
Department of Foreign Affairs boss Peter Varghese reminds staff they are public servants. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

DFAT's boss Peter Varghese told thousands of officials at the famously haughty department that they should consider themselves as public servants as well as Foreign Affairs employees.

Mr Varghese also warned the department's notoriously competitive culture could rob staffers of their ability to work as a team.

Foreign Affairs officials are acknowledged as some of bureaucracy's most self-motivated and committed performers, but their view of themselves as a public service elite and access to lucrative overseas postings, has long provoked resentment in other departments.

Mr Varghese recently told 44 rookie public servants of the class of 2015, and repeated the message for the benefit of the rest of his 5000 workers, that a successful DFAT career called for "courtesy" as well as "courage".

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"See yourself as a public servant, guided by the (Australian Public Service) and DFAT values and code of conduct, as well as courage and courtesy, and resist the temptation to see DFAT as unique," the departmental secretary said.

"Understand that DFAT is a policy, service and program delivery department and all three functions are equally important."

 Mr Varghese has been striving for several years to improve relations between DFAT and other government departments in Canberra, recognising the need for Foreign Affairs to improve its performance in co-operating across government.

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Foreign Affairs' aloof approach has long been acknowledged around the capital with bureaucrats from other departments complaining to a team compiling a "capability review" on DFAT in 2013, that it was a "closed shop".

"DFAT still faces difficulties in clearly articulating to outsiders what it does and adequately measuring the outcomes of its activities," the review team wrote.

"DFAT is seen as too detached from the work of the APS as a whole, not contributing sufficiently to (or learning enough from) the wider public service."

Even Mr Varghese was quoted in the report saying his staff were living in DFAT's "self-contained universe".

Last week he told his new graduates, who won their positions in a fiercely competitive process against several thousand other applicants, that DFAT's driven culture had its dangers.

"Don't let the highly-competitive nature of DFAT erode your capacity to work cooperatively," Mr Varghese said.

"Look for opportunities to see DFAT from the outside.

"Learn to place yourself in the mind of others, for both briefing and advocacy.

"Understand how DFAT's agenda fits into the national agenda."

The departmental secretary also advised the fledgling public servants of the dangers of specialising too much in an agency that has traditionally prized specialist expertise but sometimes lacked generalist skills.

"Plan your career so that you can acquire subject expertise and generalist skills," the secretary said.

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