You've read all the policy statements and media releases and you've looked at your new minister's background, values and first speech to Parliament.
You've done your incoming government brief, documenting how their election promises can be implemented.
You've even got a few great policy ideas that you've worked up with your colleagues.
You're ready for the first briefs to go up and the first meetings with the minister and their office. What can go wrong?
Often, the very first thing that can go wrong is you fail to reflect on how you see issues and how they are framed. Most ministers, especially when there is a change of government, are very alert to public servants and their advice being in the old government mindset.
Nicola Roxon, a former Labor minister in the Rudd/Gillard governments, said that neglecting to provide advice that reflects the government's platform was one of the biggest ministerial peeves, as well as public servants who were condescending or even openly rude.
So what can you do? "First know yourself", as the ancient Greeks were fond of saying.
Knowing your mental models and your biases can help you understand how you see issues and to frame them differently. It means you are more alert to when you might be about to put your foot in it, even if unconsciously.
Bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone.
Biases are shortcuts and can be positive or negative about a person or an issue.
Mental models are how you see the relationships between different parts of the world around you - they often underpin biases.
We all have biases and mental models through which we view the world. Understanding your own can be difficult, partly because most of us have a "blindspot bias": we don't believe we are as biased as other people. Also, while most people are aware that there are biases based on individual characteristics such as gender, age and race, there are many other types of bias that are both powerful and insidious.
Four common cognitive biases that are very relevant when you are briefing on a policy or program include:
Bias and mental models especially come to the fore when there is a need for what Daniel Kahneman calls "fast thinking".
Stretched ministers and departmental executives often have to make decisions quickly and are thus more likely to make decisions that fit pre-existing ways of thinking.
Fast thinking requires less time and effort, but it also militates against the use of new information, evidence and ideas.
The best way is to get a group of divergent thinkers together to brainstorm about an issue/evidence.
Confirmation, complexity and sunk cost biases will likely emerge very quickly, although stereotyping is often harder to pick.
Mental models are even more difficult for public servants to recognise.
In fact, many public servants appear to be quite unaware of the mental models they bring to policy issues - they think the way they see the world is normal and right.
A mental model that is virtually unquestioned in the APS is the primacy of economic considerations, with all policies needing to be justified first and foremost by their impact on the economy and jobs. (Just try to write a cabinet submission without an economic justification!)
Another one is the primacy of (certain forms of) individual choice.
In education policy, for example, the right of parents to choose what school their child can go to, and have government help fund that choice, is sacrosanct.
This is not inevitable: in Finland equality in learning outcomes is the core education philosophy.
A common mental model that sees Australian institutions as flowing from Britain and Westminster (see Michael Pezzullo's "Prosper the Commonwealth" speech in 2018) has undoubtedly limited the APS's ability to appreciate (for example) Indigenous world view and values, and to integrate them into our institutional arrangements.
And it has been argued by Craig Ritchie that Indigenous policy failures have been the result of the dominant mental models that pay no attention to the knowledge, perspectives, and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
When a government has been in for a long time, public servants can unconsciously imbibe a mental model and make it their own.
Globally, it is well acknowledged that biases and mental models need to be recognised.
The World Bank some years ago did a series of experiments on its own staff and concluded that their professional staff "can be susceptible to a host of cognitive biases, can be influenced by their social tendencies and social environments, and can use deeply ingrained mindsets when making choices".
For example, they found their experts frequently misunderstood how poor people in developing countries saw their lives. In fact a whole chapter of the 2015 book Mind Society and Behaviour was devoted to the biases of development professionals.
We haven't seen a similar study in Australia.
Another driver of bias that we frequently encounter is the effect of people's professional background, and their public service and other experiences. We have seen some:
Considering our mental models and our biases is not just an academic exercise.
Policies that failed to support the use of facemasks in the early phases of the COVID pandemic reflected a mental model and cognitive biases that were dominant in the infectious diseases world.
The World Health Organisation and expert committees that advised on COVID policies were dominated by infectious disease experts who believed droplet transmission was far more responsible for infections, and discounted what they saw as the less rigorous evidence of aerosol transmission observed by nurses, paramedics, and engineers.
If droplet transmission was dominant then handwashing, cleaning, and distancing were the top recommendations.
Aerosol transmission meant greater emphasis on facemasks for everyone, and very good ventilation.
This early bias was shown to have delayed the development of policies on the public use of facemasks and ventilation for many months.
All this matters not simply so you can get off to a good start with your minister.
It matters more fundamentally because public servants occupy a crucial position of power and influence, especially early in the life of a government. It is important for the effectiveness and reputation of the APS that its power - its agency - is exercised with care and self-awareness.
Knowing your own biases and mental models can help avoid many of the pitfalls of ill-considered policy advice and faulty implementation.
So during caretaker take some time to think about your biases and mental models. You could even have some fun in planning workshops with your colleagues.
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