What public servants need in today's crazy world: empathy and integrity
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What public servants need in today's crazy world: empathy and integrity

If we can understand how others feel and what they see, we can predict which policies won't work.

Taking the helm of the country's leading public policy school would be daunting in the best of circumstances. Doing so in the current context, as longstanding policy challenges combine with global political turbulence, may appear foolish, overly optimistic or, in the euphemistic phrase of Yes Minister, courageous.

There is no doubt that those of us who care about good public policy face significant obstacles. Trust in our institutions continues to decline, the credibility of our leaders is challenged by evidence of poor conduct and corruption, and a sizeable proportion of citizens seem to prefer "alternative facts", often ably helped by parts of the media.

The power of empathy ... and emotion: former British prime minister Tony Blair and US president Donald Trump.

The power of empathy ... and emotion: former British prime minister Tony Blair and US president Donald Trump.

Responding to these challenges won't be easy, but it is essential.

We need to begin by revisiting the idea and practice of empathy. Empathy is a crucial ingredient of successful political engagement and, I would argue, successful public policy. Being able to understand what the world looks and feels like from another's point of view is key to securing a sound appreciation of why some ideas and policy prescriptions take hold and why different groups will react in different ways. Valuing and building this capacity among our public servants as well as our politicians will improve policy design as well as its communication.

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Professor Helen Sullivan, the Crawford School of Public Policy's new director.

Professor Helen Sullivan, the Crawford School of Public Policy's new director.Credit:Peter Casamento

In enabling empathy, we must guard against some of its more cynical manifestations, particularly in the political arena. Former British prime minister Tony Blair "typified the power of "political empathy" through his self-representation as a "normal guy" who acknowledged the importance of emotions in politics. However, this can quickly tip over into manipulation, as politics becomes defined by emotional appeals; something US President Donald Trump appears to excel at.

Protecting empathy as a political and public policy virtue requires attention to integrity and expertise, both arguably in need of rehabilitation in the current political climate.

Demonstrating integrity is essential for restoring the public's confidence in the legitimacy of our institutions. This means developing clear rules and processes to support good conduct by politicians and public servants, and embedding those rules and processes in our institutions' cultures based on a set of core values. It also means effectively punishing transgression by those who work in or with government.

A political (or public) empathy underpinned by integrity acknowledges emotion but inhibits manipulation. It also exposes bullying and the use of 'emotional politics' to target particular groups, such as women, or muslims, by appealing to the fears or prejudices of others.

The attempt to normalise the idea of "alternative facts" has generated significant reaction – some serious, some comedic. The danger of this reaction is that it risks being reductionist, of arguing that something is either "true" or "false". This may be the case in some circumstances but, in politics and public policy, where you stand influences what you see. Ideas, experience and connections help shape our response to different situations, and our political and policy preferences.

The role of experts is to intervene in policy debates to bring the best evidence to bear on the questions at hand. Expertise is often as not about nuance and "it depends" rather than absolutes. And for this reason it's essential for enabling us to make progress on difficult policy problems. Expertise can counter "emotional politics" but it can also aid our ability to empathise and add weight to felt experiences through supplying evidence.

This combination of empathy, integrity and expertise is, for me, integral to developing the wise public policymakers and leaders we need in our region and globally. Many institutions have a responsibility to help make this happen, universities included.

Public policy schools have more of an obligation than most to contribute. Fortunately, they are also better placed than most to do so. Their interdisciplinarity allows for different kinds of expertise to be tested in the pursuit of the best policy solution. Their approach to teaching – critical, experiential and case-based – embeds rigour with practical application. And the active engagement of faculty with policymakers and influencers ensures the free exchange of ideas in private as well as public.

Demonstrating integrity ... also means effectively punishing transgression by those who work in or with government.

All of this gives me considerable cause for optimism for how we can support better public policy in our region, despite the challenges ahead.

Professor Helen Sullivan is the director of the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. This article is also published at the school's Policy Forum. helen.sullivan@anu.edu.au