Talking up the Canberra bubble
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Talking up the Canberra bubble

Improving the public service will require more than a handful of meaningless 'themes'.

In October, Gordon de Brouwer, now a member of the public service review panel, reportedly told attendees at an Institute of Public Administration Australia conference that "around Canberra, people talk in abstract terms rather than the direct life experience of people", adding that Canberrans "are thinking nationally and they're thinking in the abstract nationally".

During decades of listening to Canberrans talk, the phenomenon Brouwer alleged has not been evident to this correspondent. Indeed, abstract terms of expression are more grandly on show far from Canberra at any time of the day or night in, for example, the front bar of the Bridge Hotel in Smithton (Tasmania) or its counterpart in the Centennial Hotel in the slightly less well-known city of Launceston. Abstract? The habitues of these establishments relegate the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida to plain-speaking common folk intimately in touch with "the direct life experience of people".

Former department head Gordon de Brouwer says Canberrans don't talk plainly.

Former department head Gordon de Brouwer says Canberrans don't talk plainly.Credit:Rob Little

So from what do the contentious de Brouwer impressions derive? He's apparently served time in the Treasury, where the habit of economists making assumptions about the "real world" for analytical purposes might not be unknown. But the truly great Treasury officials since 1945 – Sir Frederick Wheeler, Sir Roland Wilson, Sir Richard Randall, Sir William Cole, Bernie Fraser and Ted Evans – were immensely practical, plain-speaking officials with abundant knowledge of how people lived. Wilson and Randall, from small towns in Tasmania and Queensland, were makers of high-class furniture. Evans began his public service career as a technician in the Postmaster-General's Department, while Cole, so vague memory suggests, also kicked off his career in that department as a junior postal officer delivering telegrams. The current secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, is said to come from Stawell (Victoria).

However out of or in touch Canberra officials now are, it's worth remembering that the "life experience" of people throughout Australia is mediated to them through ministers and members of Parliament, as well as the more than 60 per cent of public servants who do not reside in the ACT, not to mention the oodles of consultative "mechanisms" that regularly bring the rest of Australia to Canberra's front door. And it might be argued that there's something to be said for having parts of advice on matters of national public interest crafted at a geographic step removed from special and often self-interests than can be only too active in other places.

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Thus, de Brouwer's assertion begins to look like a variant on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's "Canberra bubble", an hypothesis, if that's not overgloryifying it, that somehow or other people in the ACT have, among other things, different life experiences from those of other citizens. But that "hypothesis" is such self-serving political bushwah that other influences must be at work on de Brouwer's imagination.

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Then, on November 7, the possible source of these influences was made clearer in a speech by Australian Public Service review panel chairman David Thodey. Thodey said the review was "focused" on five "themes", being:

  • "a strong Australian Public Service united in collective endeavour";
  • "a world-class Australian Public Service in its policy, regulation and delivery";
  • "an Australian Public Service that is truly an employer of choice";
  • "trusted and respected by its partners"; and
  • "renowned for using dynamic, digital and adaptive systems and structures".

It doesn't get much more abstract than that. If such a thing as "Canberra-speak" exists, this could line up as an exemplar, it being a kind of prose unfamiliar to personages in the watering holes of the aforementioned Tasmanian hotels or, in all likelihood, in any other locales, or even "precincts", around the country. This correspondent has done time in the bars of the Bridge and Centennial hotels and he's never heard anyone, for all their powers of abstract thought, utter therein the words "dynamic, digital and adaptive systems" or "truly an employer of choice".

In explaining these "themes", Thodey lays on further abstractions such as "a state of being", "a whole ecosystem", "entrenches stewardship and drives behaviours", "empowered and courageous leaders", "world class is more than a metric", "compelling employee value proposition", "genuine 2030 partnerships", "a process that shuns status and embraces curiosity" and quoting someone (not Donald Rumsfield) who talks about "social glue between the known and the unknown". Heady stuff from a review most of whose members do not live in Canberra.

Still, there's nothing wrong with abstraction and, in many instances, it's unavoidable and helpful. Indeed, some of the thoughts in Thodey's five "themes" may be useful, however they are inadequate and faulty in critical respects.

APS review chairman David Thodey's lexicon might be partly responsible for Gordon de Brouwer's complaint.

APS review chairman David Thodey's lexicon might be partly responsible for Gordon de Brouwer's complaint.Credit:Daniel Munoz

First, they're unclear. What does "a strong Australian Public Service" mean? "Strong" is an awkward word as it has many meanings, some of which may apply in this context. So what is it to be from the dictionary selection: "being able to resist great force", "not easily damaged", "powerful", "able to overcome", "capable of exerting great force", "formidable" or something else? It's foolhardy to try to work with a "theme" that has no clearly defined and comprehensible meaning. This looks like something from a sheet of butcher's paper.

Second, they're ambiguous. For example, what does "an employer of choice" imply and mean? It has no generally understood definition. Ask any two people and different answers are likely.

Third, they seek to secure what might not be obtainable. If we are to have "a world-class Australian Public Service", that will come with a cost. Yet Thodey warns that the "resources we need are scarcer" and there's little evidence taxpayers are prepared to pay more for platinum-plated service. Further, the terms of reference for this review ask for recommendations that might make the public service "fit for purpose"; whatever that might mean, it does not imply something that is necessarily "world class". That is to say, the "theme" and the terms of reference are out of sync.

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Fourth, the "themes" are notable for what they don't say. There's nothing in them about such crucial staples as accountability, openness, the equitable provision of services, merit staffing, honesty, integrity and so on. Some of these things might be able to be seen lurking behind the "themes" but that's not good enough. They should not be hidden behind vague and ambiguous abstractions. They warrant front and centre notification in their own right and they should be central to the review's considerations.

These "themes" need serious rethinking, clarification and expansion. If Thodey goes ahead and uses, as he puts it, "this framework to consider our recommendations", the review will risk an unhappy ending.

It appears it is prepared to take that risk and is sticking with its "themes", for all their manifest shortcomings. Indeed, at the time of writing, 1½ of them have been given pride of place on the review's website, which invites readers to vote on what "contributes most to being a trusted partner" out of a selection of "responsiveness", "openness", "reliability" or "integrity", and on what contributes most to being "united in collective endeavour", with a choice between "apolitical", "citizen-focused", "results-driven", "aspirational", "future-focussed", "clear and direct – no jargon", or "reflect the role of serving" governments. No sense of irony is apparent in the inclusion of "clear and direct – no jargon".

This is kindergarten stuff. It is miles from the boundaries of satire. And public servants are ignoring it, as they should. Thus, in the couple of weeks (when I viewed it) this childish quiz had been up on the review's website, it has attracted about 50 votes, some of which may be from the public service's 150,000 staff. There's usually little point in getting involved in the farcical.

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The quiz is yet another example of the flawed methodology the review panel has used from the word go. The time initially allowed for lodging submissions was too short and was extended for too short a period. Government agencies were not asked to lodge submissions and most didn't, including those that should have been in the front row: the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Finance Department and the Public Service Commission. The review has conducted no open hearings at which government agencies and other interested parties could be questioned about their views in a contestable way; the contrast with the financial services royal commission or, more relevantly, the Coombs royal commission could not be starker. And, at the time of writing, the review had published no research or other papers, or draft recommendations and their rationales, as did minister John Dawkins in the course of the major 1983-84 improvements. That is to say, the review has provided no satisfactory basis for substantive and meaningful consultations, among other things.

After six months, the review has only produced the five "themes" as reported herein, and Thodey's suggestion that something might be said for an overall "purpose statement" for the public service. It's slim pickings. The review has taken a lot in by way of submissions but given precious little out. It brings to mind the headmaster of a Hobart school in the 1950s who often complained that his charges were doing "the breaststroke inwards".

It's all very well for members and staff of the review to sit around in private meeting rooms with sundry invitees, a facilitator or two, and a few sheets of butcher's paper onto which spur-of-the-moment bright ideas are noted. Some of this can be useful. But it is no substitute for what should be the review's real work: the lonely hardscrabble of clearly defining problems, gathering all relevant data, analysing possible solutions, clearly articulating the best ones and justifying them. For the moment, there's no evidence the review has done anywhere near enough of this. If it has, it's hiding its light under a bushel.

Thodey reportedly said his report was likely to deliver a few big ideas and that "if we end up with a list of 50 recommendations ... we will have failed". He should study more closely the Commonwealth's history of public service reviews. Those that drifted towards a few big ideas tended to fail while those with lists of specific recommendations about how to achieve desired states, like the Coombs and Reid reports, succeeded.

The review panel needs to assess critically the position it's got itself into. It should:

  • fix up the obvious shortcomings in the "themes" Thodey has announced and stop asking childish questions about them;
  • immediately publish any research reports its secretariat has prepared or commissioned, so they can be tested by public scrutiny;
  • publish early in January a paper setting out its conclusions and draft recommendations about what, in a practical, mechanical sense, it thinks needs to be done, so that these matters can also to be tested by public scrutiny and provide a basis for sensible consultation; and
  • try, as a matter of courtesy, to provide a report, even if it is an interim one, to the Coalition government that commissioned it – that is to say, something by the end of March 2019, on the assumption the government lasts that long.

As Lleyton Hewitt might say: "Come on!"

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. (Editor's note: the APS review team published a research report shortly before this article was published.) pdg@home.netspeed.com.au

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