Immigration Department secretary Michael Pezzullo has declared war on jargon and embarrassing writing, with tips from Winston Churchill and George Orwell.
In a cautious caretaker-period address, Mr Pezzullo urged senior public servants to lift their standards after referencing the work of Max Weber, Francis Fukuyama and Henry Kissinger.
He recalled Churchill's directive to senior officers to write clearly and precisely during the Battle of Britain to ensure orders were understood by pilots and military personnel.
"If it was good enough to insist on clear thinking and clear writing during the Battle of Britain, then it should be good enough for us," he said.
"In all of our work, we should reject jargon, imprecision, inactive phrasing, woolly terms, padding and unclear-thinking language," he said.
"All of our work requires clear, crisp, meaningful and expressive communication."
Speaking at an Institute of Public Administration Australia event in Canberra, Mr Pezzullo took time to read public servants his rule book on grammar and style.
"Public service writing should be clear and direct, active and accountable," he said. "Sentences should be action-orientated, lush with verbs.
"We should use doing words because we are doers, or should be. The active voice should be the grammatical standard. 'I decided', rather than 'it was decided'."
He urged them to read George Orwell's 1948 essay Politics and the English Language, describing it as a short and worthwhile read over two cups of coffee.
Mr Pezzullo admitted the writing standards in his department were poor and senior staff needed to ensure clarity and competency.
"Frankly, any competent officer in the APS should be [able to] draft a cogent and logical paper of around 2000 words without seeking the text and template of what was prepared before," he said.
"Regrettably, too often staff papers are a pedestrian and ill-thought-out mash of cut and paste sections of pre-existing text that may or may not be relevant to the issue.
"Sadly, too many senior officers end up spending far too much time – often late at night – rewriting such sloppy fare. There are exceptions, but they are too few."
Mr Pezzullo also warned long-serving public servants who might have become disengaged, cynical and self-entitled.
"We have to strike a balance of how best to move on the unmotivated and the underperforming consistent with fair process," he said.
"How do we extract the considerable value and knowledge that long serving officers possess, even in cases where they might not be motivated to perform as energetically as they might once have been."
His comments came after a wholesale review of the public service by businesswoman Sandra McPhee, which called for an end to "jobs for life" and a relaxation of restrictions around hiring and firing.
Mr Pezzullo also disagreed with claims his department had suffered a loss of corporate memory after it merged with Customs last year and retrenched many staff.
"In our case, the magic is starting to occur when we blend the knowledge and skilled experience of those long-serving officers with new insights and skills that more recent arrivals have brought with them," he said.