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The future of government is moral, says Victoria’s most senior public servant

Key points:

  • You do need to govern for the very, very biggest of problems with the very, very biggest of visions and agendas.
  • You can’t continue to have a trust deficit and respond to it by moving at warp speed.
  • Everyone needs to surrender a bit of either their authority or their knowledge to the common purpose in order to achieve a true partnership.

This is part of a series of articles on the future of government. Chris Eccles discusses the moral dimension and the public interest with the Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation.

Part one, by Adrian Brown, discussed the enablement mindset.


Is it radical in today’s climate to expect public service to be defined by moral purpose and big ideas?

Chris Eccles, the most senior civil servant in the Australian state of Victoria doesn’t think so, yet it is not the usual topic of conversation among senior civil servants. “The public service has defined itself by both moral purpose and big ideas for many decades. It’s just that the moral dimension has never been expressly articulated. As the public sector is principally defined by the drive to create and deliver value for the public, this is the essence of the moral purpose that we serve.”

“The public service has defined itself by both moral purpose and big ideas for many decades. It’s just that the moral dimension has never been expressly articulated.”

As Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Chris Eccles leads the state’s public service, advising government on emerging policy issues and reviewing the impact of government decisions. Under Australia’s federal system, the six state governments retain power to make their own laws. Each state has its own constitution as well as a structure of legislative, executive and judiciary bodies.

And within this structure, as a bridge between policy, outcomes and the people being served, sits the public service, in a unique and sometimes uncomfortable position. Chris explains: “I believe that the vocation of public service is fundamentally motivated and bound by the principle of universalism. There are a series of beliefs, usually unspoken, that sit at the heart of what it means to be a public servant. I believe they are incontestable: that every child is entitled to a quality education, the sick and vulnerable should get the care they need irrespective of their means, discrimination is wrong, justice is blind and gainful employment is a fundamental human right.

“Then there’s the issue – it’s less about the outcomes and more around the moral dimension – of how we govern. We govern by means of our virtue. Confucius said you govern by reference to the North Star, and I think we have a responsibility as public servants to govern by the public interest, which is our North Star.”

The sense of the public service having a responsibility to something bigger, more complex and more constant than outcomes that can be measured purely in data points and put on graphs, about helping people create and get better lives, is somewhat at odds with the managerialism we have so often seen from government. “I actually think that the tenets of managerialism, which dominated public sector thinking for some time, were counterintuitive to the way most public servants prefer to operate and see their vocation. To come back to an approach where there is a direct line of sight between what we do, the dollars invested and the results, as measured in terms of benefits to both the individual and society is much more motivating for the public service.

“I don’t think it requires us to change the deep-seated mindset; it’s more about giving public servants permission to express their impulse to create a better society. That’s not to say some elements of managerialism aren’t useful, but they are best when they are anchored by moral purpose and the two become mutually reinforcing. A meaningful outcome around which the community is motivated might be something around suicide prevention, increasing cancer survival rates, reducing recidivism. These are the clarion calls around which you can coalesce not only the community but other actors who contribute to public value. Communities are beginning to expect this approach and governments now all talk in terms of outcomes. It connects deeply with the DNA of public service.”

A common difficulty in many parts of the world is the pressure placed on public servants by the media or opposition parties to come up with results on an almost daily basis. Where the aim is to achieve broader outcomes-focused goals it can be hard to balance these immediate demands with the longer-term aims. It’s something Chris is aware of. “Yes, there’s an obvious tension. The first response should be  to call out that tension and show the courage that comes with saying, ‘I understand what you are asking for but this approach is not amenable to an instant statement of success based on a solid metric.’ That requires courage on the part of the body politic, but I think it is part of the compact with the public service if governments want us to deliver meaningful outcomes and not be diverted by the need for an instant metric gratification.”

The argument for a morally driven public service, less responsive to short-term or simplistic issues and more focused on broad long-term outcomes is compelling. But how easy is it to convince the public that there is a positive change afoot? That this is not just another fad? Chris does not see this as a problem: “I don’t think you need to convince the public. I fundamentally believe this approach is what the community and the public expect of government.

“Citizens are more than tolerant; they expect governments to think in the long term”

“In Victoria recently, for example, the government announced an infrastructure project worth tens of billions of dollars, projected to be decades in the delivery. There was careful deliberation over whether the infrastructure proposal was a credible proposition to put into the public domain because of the time between conception and completion. The response from the public has been overwhelmingly supportive. I think it is the responsibility of governments to continue with that approach. Citizens are more than tolerant; they expect governments to think in the long term.

“We had a similarly positive response to a formal inquiry into a new system to take an extremely long-term approach to the prevention of family violence. I suspect we are not giving the community enough credit for being able to work through the idea that governments don’t just govern for the immediate. You do need to govern for the very, very biggest of problems with the very, very biggest of visions and agendas.”

In the areas Chris mentions, the government had a record of delivering, so it had some credibility with the public when it came to longer-term, more visionary proposals. What we often see, particularly in Europe, is that a less confident government is more wary of the media cycle and more concerned with short-term gains, which makes them less likely to strike out for a complex policy outcome.

Chris believes that social license has to be earned by governments. “If you have a social license underpinned by a record of achievement, then governments earn the right to expend that license in ways less successful governments may not have the opportunity to do – but you need to be very careful how you apply that right.”

The general trend, however, seems to be that government is speeding up. Chris notes that “it’s almost as if governments have reached the view that ‘if the community is no longer trusting of us, then we need to be judged on performance – and fast’. Ultimately I think it’s an unsustainable position. You can’t continue to have a trust deficit and respond to it by moving at warp speed. The impulse of government to drive rapid reform is directly linked, in my view, to the absence of public trust.”

“I think that the political class is going to have to address this absence of trust.”

In a country as large and diverse as Australia that has experienced a “revolving door” of prime ministers in recent years, public trust – which is in decline around the world and can lead governments to adopt short-termism and populist policies – is not something that can be ignored.

Chris reminds us that “the ANU Australian electoral survey, which operates at the national level, talked about the collapse in public trust in government by I think eight points from 2016. Interestingly, there was a separation between ‘big G’ government and the public service, so there had been the maintenance of trust in the institution of the public service, which I think acts as a bit of ballast or counterweight for a decline in trust in the political class. But ultimately, I think that the political class is going to have to address this absence of trust.”

A topic of constant debate around the world is the extent to which public servants serve the wishes of ministers or take full responsibility for serving people well. “I think there’s definitely a challenge there for government. For the public service, our overwhelming regard is to serve the public interest which, by definition, takes you beyond mere responsiveness to the needs of the government of the day.”

So what does this mean for complex problems that can only be tackled by working beyond the departmentalised and siloed infrastructure that has built up in governments over decades and centuries? “There’s no doubt that working towards shared outcomes helps those within the public sector work together in a ‘joined-up’ way. The signature outcomes framework in Victoria is the family violence outcomes framework. It fundamentally changed how different parts of the public service think about family violence by providing a shared direction, purpose and agenda. There are still a lot of areas  in government that work against that, but we are now working our way through these issues so we can operate in a way that’s moved beyond the feudal era.”

Chris is currently involved in setting up a Policy Impact Centre for Victoria to respond to “system-level challenges” by developing a “system-wide perspective on decision-making” to overcome just these issues and to enable evaluation, coordination, guidance and knowledge sharing on the broadest, cross-portfolio basis.

“We are working on the idea of the ‘public purpose sector’ (rather than the public sector), which unites all of the actors around a common purpose. They can be the university sector, not for profit sector, business sector, but they will all have to change the way they think. Everyone needs to surrender a bit of either their authority or their knowledge to the common purpose in order to achieve a true partnership, which is defined as mutual accountability for an outcome. And that outcome must serve the community.”

“We are working on the idea of the ‘public purpose sector’ (rather than the public sector).”

And what about communities and their interface with government? Is there a case for a future in which citizens, communities and governments work together more closely to solve the really big issues? Can governments empower people and let go of the top-down delivery model for a more genuinely partnership-based approach? Chris believes this is possible but will not be easy.

“We need a sophisticated way of tapping into community sentiment, moderating those who consistently dominate the social media connection with government and working more directly with communities that aren’t pursuing a particular narrow interest.”

So a crucial issue is to make people in communities who are normally voiceless feel they have some say and that their voices could change the course of a policy pathway. Chris explains two new approaches being used in Victoria. “We’ve experimented in the most recent State Budget with Pick My Project, a $30 million initiative whereby communities vote on which projects in their local areas will be supported by funding. The demand and levels of engagement across Victoria have been significant. Close to 100,000 people were directly involved, from submitting project ideas to voting for projects they believed had most value to their community. The voting period saw 480,000 users visit the site, which equates in pure numeric terms to just under 7.5% of the state’s population.

“We’ve also recently set up the Business Insights Service, whose purpose is to tap into genuine community sentiment without being captured by the narrow concentration of special interests that so often drown it out. Specialist analysts within the Business Intelligence Service synthesise data from a range of sources – including social media, traditional media, news comments, discussion boards, as well as data from public service managed channels such as web analytics and the consultation platform Engage Victoria. It’s an increasingly sophisticated tool which allows us to provide information to government about what the community genuinely thinks rather than providing the false positives that come from just replaying back whatever the dominant social media streams might be saying.”

Finally, on the subject of what legitimacy means to citizens around the world, although “integrity” scored highly, “empathy” came out even higher, along with “diversity”. In many countries, including the UK, civil servants feel that their being largely anonymous makes it hard to demonstrate these qualities. Chris Eccles’s team is currently working with Nesta on a world-first project to test whether empathy (along with imagination and courage) can be taught.

The programme, called States of Change, targets the behaviours and cultures that enable innovation in government. The aim is to support public servants to become more effective change agents by adopting innovation mindsets and habits, alongside new ways of working, that sustain an innovation culture in government. The programme has reached its midpoint, and the interim evaluation being undertaken by the University of Melbourne finds that there has been a marked shift in thinking by participants, including an increase in empathy, imagination and courage. The ability to learn and develop these qualities may well have an impact on the future of government –  not just in terms of innovation but perhaps in terms of embedding and strengthening a sense of action with a moral purpose.

This article has also been published on the Centre for Public Impact website.

READ PART ONE: How governments can achieve more by letting go

Chris Eccles was interviewed by the Centre for Public Impact as part of its work to explore the future of government globally.  If you have any comments or would like to get in touch to share your views, please contact: [email protected]centreforpublicimpact.org

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