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‘Offer better advice’: overcoming the public service ‘victim mindset’

It’s a tough time to be a public servant, but one deputy secretary is urging his colleagues to break out of their despondency.

It was hard to avoid the pessimistic outlook at this year’s IPAA national conference.

Simon Phemister

Between falling trust in government, the increasing replacement of permanent public servants with consultants and the perceptions of a more politicised and less capable bureaucracy, the consensus is that there’s much to worry about.

But rather than dwelling on self-pity, the public service should break out of its “victim mindset”, says Simon Phemister, deputy secretary economic policy and state productivity at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

“How do you have such capability but feel like we’re a victim of circumstance? Well break out of it, deal with it.”

And perhaps it’s not as bad as everyone thinks.

“We sometimes short-change ourselves on capabilities in the public service,” he told last week’s IPAA national conference.

“Over the years I’ve been quite shocked by how capable the public service is.”

Phemister noted that he had come up through “a public service that’s quite proud of what it is and what it’s about, quite strong and unyielding in its commitments and its principles”, urging colleagues to recognise their own abilities.

“How do you have such capability but feel like we’re a victim of circumstance? Well break out of it, deal with it.”

Nonetheless, he conceded there had been “extraordinary growth” in the numbers of ministerial advisers and consultancies.

But increasing competition is also an opportunity to improve.

“Offer better advice. Be better, be stronger. Use consultancies tactically, build your own capabilities so that next time around the block you have them under your own belt,” he urges.

“I think the best way to break through that — and I don’t think it’s a point of optimism, I think it’s a comment — is to take it on, challenge it, and when we come back here next year — it’s a collective responsibility — we don’t feel like victims, because that’s very much in our own control.”

Mythological constraints

When asked to name his biggest bugbear, Phemister nominated “the false barriers that constrain us constantly in the public service”.

It’s a lot of the things that aren’t real policies that we constrain ourselves by that frustrate me the most,” he explained.

“It’s a lot of the things that aren’t real policies that we constrain ourselves by that frustrate me the most.”

“So walking into an organisation and being told ‘you cannot do that’, ‘you can’t push that door’ or ‘you can’t take that opportunity’ because of x, y and z. It turns out x, y and z is mythology, and that’s where I shake my head.

“The amount of times that, supported by different people, I’ve given something a little nudge that just looked a little bit wrong, or a constraint that I was assured was a genuine constraint that we just … just giving it a little nudge to prove that it’s real, the amount of times that it’s fallen over and proven to be mythology, that’s where I shake my head the most.”


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Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.