Verona Burgess: staying cool in Canberra


It is time for public servants to stop trying to be cool. Verona Burgess explores the question of just how “public” officials should be and the lessons from watching some of Canberra’s best.

The Department of Finance’s  “paleo” graduate recruitment video is hardly the first time the public service has tried to lure staff to Canberra.

Who can forget the immortal, “Hi! Come and join us in Canberra — a week in the life of three young girls in Canberra — a typist, a stenographer and a secretary”.

“Come and live the good life in Canberra now”, it exhorted. “The work is really a lot more interesting than I thought it would be … There are no long journeys to and from work … Our evenings are free and the shops are open on Friday night as well as Saturday morning.”

Bonus for 50 words per minute

Awks, as they say.

By now, given the reaction to the paleo video in mainstream and social media, Finance might have twigged that getting plenty of hits is not the same thing as actually being a hit.

Since it is fashionable for the Secretaries’ Board to talk about learning, here’s a thought: it is time for the Australian Public Service to stop trying to be cool.

There is nothing wrong with calling for new ideas at all levels and ensuring they are not strangled at birth by the risk-averse, dead hand of middle management.

But from the Finance video to the Australian Public Service Commission’s embarrassing ‘Brandit’ campaign and some of the ‘think outside the square’ so-called innovation efforts, there is one common factor: as a general rule, public servants look painfully uncomfortable promoting themselves.  

That is probably because it goes against the grain of the personality types and the characteristics that have been shown over decades to be most enduring in public service.

It is not just about stereotyping. For the proper functioning of government, the trusty rule of thumb is that ministers take the limelight; public servants work quietly behind the scenes except when dragged into the light of scrutiny, when they are expected to perform professionally, impartially and steadily.

If that changed, you might have to start questioning whether the public service was fit for purpose.

At a time of Trumpism, the fragmentation of news and obsessive self-promotion on social media it is easy to misunderstand the nature of public service.

Graduates must learn the trade from the bottom and a lot of it is boring and trivial.

Just ask Peter Shergold about the night of the 2007 election which, as then-head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, he spent photocopying and triple-checking incoming briefs for Kevin Rudd, only to find the secure briefcase had jammed shut with the briefs inside.

As for the paleo video, whom was Finance trying to recruit? Has there been any diminution in the quality (or number) of graduates applying to the APS in these times of limited permanent employment and fabulous working conditions, including excellent leave entitlements and 15.4% superannuation?

Hardly. All departments boast about the quality of applicants and how many they have to turn away. Each year’s graduates are spruiked as being the best and brightest. Each year the APSC compiles statistics that show how well educated public servants are.

For example, according to the APS Statistical Bulletin 2015-16, among 137,848 ongoing employees there were: 2339 doctorates, 8655 masters degrees, 6890 postgrad diplomas and 27,772 bachelor degrees, as well as other undergrad and vocational qualifications. Ten years ago — in 2005-06 — out of 134,632 ongoing staff there were 2688 doctorates, 4605 masters degrees, 6642 postgrad diplomas, 23,452 bachelor degrees, and so on. That is not what you’d call a drop in educational standards.

It would appear that Finance didn’t recruit any graduates from the National Institute of Dramatic Art last year, but there is no shortage of theatre in the public service for those who want to see the real thing.

Last week’s Senate additional estimates were mostly reassuringly dull, but there were some dramatic highlights, and not just the paleo video.

The first appearance of the Digital Transformation Agency under the experienced hand of interim CEO Nerida O’Loughlin threw some light on the ongoing saga of Digital Transformation Office’s demise, although the suggestion that whoever replaces Paul Shetler as chief digital officer would continue to be “disruptive” beggars belief.

Human Services dug itself deeper into the mire of the Robodebt controversy.

The drama continued of Attorney-General George Brandis versus the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Unfortunately, the finance and public administration committee let two of the most important watchdogs slip through to the keeper of the June budget estimates by not calling the Auditor-General or the Ombudsman.

But for an example of a well-oiled machine in operation, check out the first few hours of Defence estimates and watch Defence secretary Dennis Richardson and Chief of Defence Mark Binskin in action.

Perhaps, once the Hansards are published, graduates could try practising some of their better lines in front of a mirror before taking part in the next corporate video.

  • Mark

    Great to see Verona Burgess back reporting on the public service. For many years she filled a gap left by the Parliamentary Press Gallery more interested in political theatre than the actual mechanics of government.