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Crisis of confidence: a black dog stalks the public service

Alarming new research has revealed the black dog stalking the public services of Australia as their unique professional obligations are afforded less respect than in the past.

Despair for its future and disquiet over the retreat of liberal democratic traditions now plague more than two-thirds of the public sector’s most self-motivated employees.

Similar numbers no longer believe the public service remains frank and fearless, nor that it is appreciated for the non-partisan role it plays, and many fear that role has been usurped by ministerial advisors.

The survey was conducted by Professor Peter Shergold, respected former mandarin and now national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Deep underlying concerns

“It’s a deeply uncertain public service now, about both how it is perceived by the governments it serves, how it it is perceived by outsiders, and how it perceives itself.”

“There is still a reservoir of commitment and traction, but obviously there are deep underlying concerns,” Shergold says. “It’s a deeply uncertain public service now, about both how it is perceived by the governments it serves, how it it is perceived by outsiders, and how it perceives itself.”

Shergold avoided the blanket approach used by public service commissions, instead personally visiting all the major cities around Australia in August this year and tapping into the sector’s most engaged — those with the lived experience and drive to influence its future.

About 830 people came to his talks, and 817 completed his survey. Three quarters were current public servants in state and territory governments, 15% federal public servants, 3% ex-public servants, and the remaining were other interested parties.

A plurality (36%) are unsure if the public service is fit for purpose, and a further 32% explicitly disagree that it is fit for purpose. A minority of 31% agree the public service is currently fit for purpose.

Among the other perceived threats revealed in the results: about 16% of the current public servants who responded to the survey believe their service manages performance well, 28% believe it is agile, and a third believe it takes a whole of government approach.

Professional, ethical, citizen-caring

“A majority of the current public servant respondents say they are proud of their profession.”

But there were also perceived strengths, with more than two-thirds of all respondents believing the public service is professional, ethical and citizen-caring.

Shergold will present on the results at the IPAA National Conference in Melbourne today, which will also be streamed live to IPAA members around the country.

A majority of the current public servant respondents also say they are proud of their profession. However, the net promoter score shows that view is extremely weak — a mere +6 on the standard scale of -100 to +100, in which anywhere between +10 and +50 is seen as an indicator of a good employee loyalty.

A minority (42%) think the public sector is innovative. A nearly-even split think it is collaborative (49%) or outcomes oriented (49%). An even smaller number (41%) believe it makes efficient use of taxpayers’ money.

The state perspectives showed surprising uniformity, which in Shergold’s interpretation points to external, rather internal factors:

“I think what you are now picking up is growing concerns about the political environment in which a non-partisan public service has to operate. We are operating in a world that is becoming hyper partisan.”

The story of liberal democracies around the world, Shergold notes, is that of increased populism, increased authoritarianism, increasing political divisiveness, an erosion of the political centre, a declining faith in expertise, and a declining faith in institutional structures of authority. Politicians, business, religious institutions and public services have been particularly affected.

Non-partisanship afforded less respect

“What you are now picking up is growing concerns about the political environment in which a non-partisan public service has to operate.”

“That is obviously hard, because if you think about what the public servant does, it is to provide expertise and considered advice, from a group of people who, on a professional basis, are paid to see all sides of a public policy issue.

“By their very nature, public servants are trained to work with successive governments, in a way in which you negotiate on an iterative basis for compromise. And now you’re doing it in a world in which that non-partisanship is afforded less respect, and their expertise is afforded less respect.”

Their day-to-day job is getting harder, Shergold observes from his conversations with both senior mandarins and middle management. “Harder for them to maintain the traditional ethics and values, particularly Westminster, of the public service. The irony is that it is with these changes we need more than ever before that professional public administration … as glue that holds the participatory democracy together.”

The focus of the IPAA national conference is “fault lines for the future of the public sector” and an opening panel will tackle the changing role of professional public servants in a “hyper-partisan” world, with speakers bringing perspectives from the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Please stay tuned this week as The Mandarin publishes more of these conversations.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.